Philology Phriday––Evolve

2 Jul

I thought it would be interesting in the light of this thing called Philology Phriday, when every Friday I gloss the etymology and development of an English word, to highlight the evolution of the word “evolve.” The word’s use and denotation has gone through many changes through many different periods, starting from humble Latin roots to now being a favorite of science textbooks and born-again atheists and the anti-creation/intelligent design camp.

The root of the word, “volvere” comes from the Latin term for turning, rolling, and is the same root as the Spanish “volver”––meaning (if my Spanish is anything close to passable) to re-turn to a place. This turning mechanism, when placed in lock with the prefix “e” produces the translated meaning (from Latin) to something like ejecting with a rolling or coiling motion, rolling out or away, or even simply causing something to roll.

In olden times, as in pre-1800’s, the word took on various meanings, most of which I’ve never seen used in the wild (and by wild, I guess I mean just normal, “real” everyday speech). Here’s a short list that I dug up from the Oxford English Dictionary:

  1. To draw out, extract, release; to bring to light. (now obscure)
  2. To unfold, unroll; open out, expand. (now obscure)
  3. To examine (a thought in most cases) in depth, to consider deeply. (now rare)
  4. To wind or unwind a thread. (completely obscure)
  5. In Mathematics, to extract (as in, the root of a number or quantity). (now rare, even in the Math world)

Is there anything you notice about that list, besides the multiple uses of the infinitive, or the seemingly random use of the comma vs. the semi-colon, or the neat numbering system? Yeah I noticed it, too. Why are all these definitions dead or unused? Or to put it more bluntly, who killed evolution?

In my best Hercule Poirot I will attempt to solve the case of the Murdered definitions (duh duh duh!). But you zee, it vwill not be essy (to read that is, cuz I’m fairly bad at a Belgian accent, let alone having to type it out). But enough of zis, how do you say, dilly-dally. Vwe must get to ze bottom of zis at once!

It could not have been monsieur involve. This I know for sure, as he and I vwere playing bridge at ze house of monsieur evolve right at ze proximal time of death, around ze year 1800, vwhen teu of ze new meanings

  1. To create or imagine independently, or by a priori reasoning, and
  2. To generate, develop, or modify by natural processes or gradual alteration; especially from a comparatively rudimentary to a more highly organized condition.

zay shewed up muttering some nonsense about having some rightful place at ze evolve estate. You think it must have been zees two, mon ami. Zay arr ze killers of monsieur evolve? It is so strange, to think zat awl of zees denotatiah’s vwere so closely related. Could zees two really be ze killers, mon ami? Ahh, ze little gray cells, mon ami. We have forgotten to use them ziss whole time! But, of course!

None of zees definitions could have killed ze others. Zair bond is too tight; zey vwere awl family. What must have killed zem then, was ze unseen and despicable combination of ze, how do you say, ah yes, human vanitay and see-unce. Zis you can see most readimohn in ze two most raysohn definitions displayed above. Ze first is most obviously a subtle (zoh not subtle enough for a bad impression of Hercule Poirot) and implicit emphasis on ze power of ze individual human intellect. Instead of an unrolling from a substance zat is already rolled up, zis new meaning is about asserting some newfound sense of independence (somesing not found in any of ze previous definitions of ze word). And zis second one? Well is it not apparent, mon ami?

Zis second definition implies a passive voice, almost as if ze killler were choking ze voice of ze old evolve and replacing it vwith a new one. But it is true what they say, mon ami, a killer always leaves somesing behind. And zis killer vwas most definitely human. Who else vwould turn an active process into a passive one?

Zis case is closed.


One Response to “Philology Phriday––Evolve”

  1. B July 6, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Now on to the curious case of Mr. Poirot’s extended period in Germany!

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