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The Evolution of Verbal Behavior: The Law of Degeneration of Referent: a Guess

One characteristic of language as it is used is that in most communities, perhaps all except scholarly, pedantic, and “well-educated” ones, many new words and phrases (I shall use the term “shreds”) appear from time to time. Some correspond with technical advances in the culture. A more significant set of these are often termed “slang”–words, terms, catch-phrases of all sorts. Of such slang expressions, some prove to be fads, or drop out.

Others, however, survive, either as slang, that is, appearing only in colloquial speech or highly informal writing–or as formally accepted members of the linguistic community. The etymological dictionaries, which are, after all, a compendium of many characteristics of the evolution of verbal behavior, provide us with both an “archaeological” record (where the derivation can solely be inferred from the occurrence of cognates). It behooves those who study human behavior–especially verbal behavior–to examine this record and its implications most closely, and to refrain from developing global theories until it is fully explored.

Specifically, it is asserted that the study of etymological dictionaries, and of dictionaries of slang demonstrates unequivocally that:

(a) The language used to refer to human behavior, and to its properties evolves from language used to refer to the concrete environmental antecedents to behavior, to the actual extensively observable activities themselves, and to their environmental consequences.

(b) That such shreds, when they become incorporated in the formal language, are used in progressively broader contexts, and lose their sharpness of referent.

(c) That the loss of sharpness of referent is associated with the shift from purely colloquial usage to formal written usage.

(d) That when the shred has lost this sharpness, then other slang shreds appear that have an almost identical initial referent, and the process begins anew. Abstraction, that is, is a process of drawing away from the objects and events around and within us.

Examples illustrating these orderly processes are:

You’ve got to have heart – courage
A burr under his saddle – chagrin;
Uptight – anxious;
Pluck – guts;
Choosy – intelligent.

The reader is invited to collect his own confirmatory data by referring to the appropriate dictionaries, and perhaps by comparing, say, the vocabulary and syntax of Plautus with the vocabulary and syntax of Cicero, and then both with modern Italian and other Romance languages.

It is finally suggested that those terms whose derivation does not include a shift of referent are very likely ones that refer to basic stable behavior processes.

This hypothesis is placed forward only for English and its associated languages. Linguists may demonstrate its greater generality. Nor is it irrelevant to Freudian and Jungian thought.

Finally, the reader is invited to consider the choice of the term “shred” itself.

Abstraction is itself a case in point: of drawing away from the specific objects and events? Of dragging generalizations from them? Of pulling classes of things out of a heterogenous set? Of pulling kinds of things from other kinds of things? No, of pulling litters from other litters. (See your etymological dictionary.)

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