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Which Came First? The Word or the Meaning?

hannahgisele's picture

In preparation for my second essay, I’ve been looking into the etymologies of words, and the ways in which words have evolved. In an earlier post of mine (one written on 2/6/2011), I delved into the subject of the ways in which words shift in meaning, but didn’t touch on the flip side of this evolutionary process: when a definition remains the same over time, but the word used to describe it is the constant that is being modified. In another class I’m taking (Female Subjects with Bethany Schneider), we’ve spoken about the eradication of the word ‘hermaphrodite’ when used in reference to intersex people. This important and necessary shift has functioned as a ‘story’ itself – the ‘story’ that the word ‘hermaphrodite’ connotes is that a person is both wholly male and female, which we have learned is a physiological impossibility. As is common and expected in scientific fields, one story will replace another, and in this case, new terms were introduced in order to account for newly attained knowledge. In this way, we can see how science necessitates the creation of new words and in turn, the ways that words facilitate new scientific understanding as we create ways to understand our knowledge and most current, up-to-date stories.



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