The Evolution of Evolution

This month’s video looks at why and how the meanings of words evolve, and how this is connected to the word evolution and the history of the book:

If you’re interested in even more discussion of semantic shift have a look at The Ling Space’s video “Sense and Shiftability” and the episode “Polysemous Words” from the podcast Words for Granted. By the way, another term you might come across in reference to weakening is semantic bleaching — it’s a particularly evocative one, isn’t it. Another type of figurative change in meaning is synecdoche. That’s when a part stands in for the whole. So when a ship’s captain calls for “all hands on deck”, the word hands has taken on the new meaning of referring to the sailors themselves. Similar to this is when one uses the name of a capital city, such as Washington, to refer to the whole country or the whole government of that country. An interesting example of synecdoche in which the new meaning has taken over as the primary meaning is the word table, which in Old French meant “board”, but now refers, in both French and English, to the entire piece of furniture including board and legs.

As for the word evolution, in the video I summarized pretty briefly its semantic development, but a closer look at this will prove interesting. The first recorded sense of evolution in English is actually in reference to a military manoeuvre, in the early 17th century. Then we have some literal uses of the word to refer to various types of turning movements as in dancing, gymnastics, and even machine parts. From the 17th century we also see the word used in the more figurative sense of a progression of a series of events, like the unfolding or unrolling of history. From the late 17th century we also see the word used in a variety of mathematical senses, such as the opening out of a curve and the extraction of a root from a given power. Skipping forward, after the word has come to have its modern biological Darwinian sense, it comes also to be used in other scientific contexts from the mid 19th century, such as the development of the Earth or the Universe. But as I mentioned in the video, Darwin mostly avoided using the term himself, in part perhaps because of the notion of a simple unfolding or revelation of history, which might have invoked a more creationist notion of natural history, and also probably because it had previously been used in reference to other theories of biological development, such as preformationism in which organisms were thought to develop from miniature versions of themselves:

As I mentioned in a previous video on Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, the senior Darwin also used the word evolution in reference to his own proto-evolutionary theories. So Charles himself used other terms such as transmutation and descent with modification, only using the word once (specifically in its verb form) in the final sentence of Origin of Species: “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” For more on the chain of events that leads up to Darwin's theory of evolution, you can have a look at our video "Fossil".

And finally the history of the book. I got the idea of book sizes and sheep from an excellent blog post from Got Medieval. It fitted in well not only with the development of parchment to paper, but also with the general theme of the evolution and also repurposing of technology, with the carry over of book sizes all the way to ereaders. By the way, though the distinction is often made between parchment coming from sheep and vellum from cows, it should be pointed out that this distinction doesn’t always hold, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. As for the word folio, when we talk about foliation in medieval manuscripts, it’s customary not to number the pages as we do with modern books, but to number the leaves, referring to the front and back of each leaf as recto and verso respectively, literally meaning the “right” side and the “turned” side. The pages in medieval manuscripts were not originally numbered so this convention is a modern scholarly convenience, and this is an important point, as we’ll see in a minute.

And in the video, though I implied the importance of technological development in book technology, it’s worth taking the time here to discuss it more explicitly. The benefit of the scroll over the clay tablet is fairly obvious, as the thin rolled up papyrus can include far more text in the same amount of space, a higher information density you might say. What’s not so obvious perhaps is the leap ahead that the move to the codex affords. (By the way a quick sidenote: it’s frequently reported that Julius Caesar was responsible for the invention of the codex, though I haven’t been able to verify this story). With a scroll, the text is available in a purely linear order. You literally have to “scroll” through the text, making it difficult to go back to a previous passage in the text. But the codex allows for random access and it is perhaps not too much of an overstatement to suggest that this plays an important role in the explosion of information that has accelerated technical scientific progress. So it’s something of a feedback loop with technological progress accelerating the pace of the progress of technological progress. It’s funny that in a way we’ve taken a step backward to some extent with ereaders, which are somewhat more clumsy at flipping through the text, and we’re once again “scrolling” through a book. And with the switch to paper that’s much cheaper than parchment and the printing press, which caused in the 15th century it’s own information explosion (with more books being printed in the first 50 years than had been produced in the 1000 years before the printing press). By the way, uppercase and lowercase are also terms derived from movable type, like font, referring literally to cases in which the letters were kept in. But back to the codex, the other big advantage is that it allows for an index, since page divisions give us distinct reference points. Though, as I said, the pages weren’t originally numbered--that practise didn’t really take off until the early 16th century, and so indexes got their start toward the end of the 16th century. Also during the 16th century we find the invention of the bibliography, with Conrad Gesner’s Bibliotheca universalis, a bibliographic index of all the books Gesner could get his hands on.

The word index, by the way, as you might have guessed, is the same word as the index finger, and comes from the Latin verb indicare “to point out” — makes sense, right? And in Latin, the word index could refer not only to the finger but also to anything that points something out, like a sign or token, or a person who betrays a secret, in other words an informer, and appropriately to our discussion here it was also the word for the title of a book. In any case, all this 16th century pagination and indexing points out another problem with the modern ebook, that there’s no consistent pagination, as the screen and font sizes are potentially variable. You might for instance be reading on an ereader like a Kindle or a much smaller phone or a varying size of tablet (which by the way is related to the word table from earlier, literally a "little table" but in the earlier sense of a "board" without the table legs). On the other hand, the new technology gives us the compensatory function of a full search of all the text in the ebook. And indeed we can certainly make the case that, like the development of the codex, paper, the printing press, and the index, the move to electronic text has caused a similar explosion in information and innovation in our modern world.


A friend of mine and fellow medievalist has informed me that a couple of elements in the video are in fact myths about the history of the book (though seemingly quite widespread ones). First, parchment wasn’t in fact invented in Pergamon. For instance, the earliest known Egyptian use of parchment is from the 20th Dynasty (1195-1085 BCE). The widely reported story goes that parchment was developed in Pergamon when Ptolemy refused to export Egyptian papyrus to Pergamon. This belief seems to have developed from the fact that Pergamon was a major producer of parchment (but not in fact its originator). Most of the etymological sources I checked repeat the myth, though occasionally with hedging language like “was said to have originated” or “supposedly”. Surprisingly, Wikipedia seems to be the one place that gets it exactly right!

Secondly, there seems to be no evidence of the folding method to produce book sizes earlier than paper books, so it wouldn’t therefore be connected with parchment and sheep. As my friend points out, it doesn’t make a lot of sense with parchment anyway, since it would be very difficult to fold. The source for the idea that book sizes are connected to sheep sizes is a post on the blog Got Medieval, written by a medievalist who works with manuscript images, so seemingly a reliable source, but it’s been widely reported in places such as Wired and Neatorama. If anyone has any more information about this, I’d love to hear it.