New research reveals words like ‘sex’ and ‘fight’ endure in language

Researchers have uncovered fascinating insights into the endurance of certain words in our language. Similar to the mechanism of natural selection, these words have proven their staying power over time.

The study,conducted by the University of Warwick, titled “How cognitive selection affects language change,” identifies three key characteristics that contribute to a word’s longevity:

While recent discussions surrounding the Word of the Year have explored new and trendy words like ‘rizz’ or ‘situationship,’ Professor Thomas Hills’ research delves into the factors that determine why some words persist while others fade away.

Early Acquisition: Words that are acquired earlier in life tend to have a higher chance of enduring. These words become deeply ingrained in our linguistic repertoire, standing the test of time.

Concreteness: Words associated with tangible objects or vivid imagery have a better chance of surviving. For instance, the word ‘cat’ is more concrete than ‘animal,’ and ‘animal’ is more concrete than ‘organism.’

Arousal: Words that evoke strong emotions or sensations, such as ‘sex’ and ‘fight,’ are more likely to endure. This finding suggests that the human brain is drawn to words that elicit a powerful response.

These findings shed light on how our minds process and filter information, a phenomenon known as ‘cognitive selection.’ In today’s information-rich world, where various forms of content compete for our attention, understanding this process becomes crucial.

The study, published in the esteemed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), offers valuable insights into the evolution of language and its intrinsic connection to our cognitive processes.

Professor Thomas Hills, an author of the study and a renowned psychologist at the University of Warwick, explains the significance of their research, stating, “Information is a complex organism, constantly evolving as it undergoes cognitive selection within our minds.”

While languages undergo changes influenced by social, cultural, and cognitive factors, the human mind remains relatively stable and exerts lasting impacts on language evolution. This cognitive selection determines what linguistic information will endure in the information marketplace.

The research involved two phases. Firstly, over 12,000 participants were asked to retell thousands of short stories, enabling researchers to assess word usage. Secondly, millions of words from various sources, including books, newspapers, and magazines spanning two centuries, were analyzed to examine language evolution from 1800 to 2000.