New niches

As the e-mail habit spread in the late 20th century, the user often found his or her ‘inbox’ deluged with unwanted, intrusive and inane messages, usually sent by automated systems. A name was needed for this suddenly common phenomenon: a niche opened up in verbal meaning space.

The niche was filled by the word spam, which Jesper Hoffmeyer (2008, 137-8) traces back to a song in a Monty Python sketch (because its ‘endlessly repetitive lyrics suggest an endless repetition of worthless text, similar to what is contained within the e-mail variety of spam’). The word had been coined much earlier as a ‘telescope word’ for canned spiced ham (a disagreeable dish for many), but it must have been a memory of the Monty Python routine that triggered the association that plugged the word firmly into the niche it came to occupy. Certainly the original inventors of the word ‘Spam’ had no idea what it would later come to mean.

Many of our linguistic habits have similarly creative (spontaneous, accidental) origins, and this accounts for some of the polyversity we find in language. But Hoffmeyer’s point is that the same sort of thing happens in the biological realm, when an opening suddenly appears for unused (or differently used) genetic material to be plugged into a new sequence which adds something significant to the genetic resources of the organism.

The decisive cause of the birth of a new functional gene would be a lucky conjunction of two events: 1) an already existing nonfunctional gene might acquire a new meaning through integration into a functional (transcribed) part of the genome, and 2) the gene product would hit an unfilled gap in the semiotic needs of the cell or the embryo. In this way, a new gene becomes a scaffolding mechanism, supporting a new kind of interaction imbuing some kind of semiotic advantage upon its bearer.

— Hoffmeyer (2008, 138)

The somatic interpretant of the new gene may turn out to be a structural or behavioral change that confers some kind of pragmatic advantage upon the organism, filling a niche in practical meaning space: genetic polyversity pays off.

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