Vol. 3 | Etymology: Speculative Design Research on the Power of Language within Shifting Generational Contexts | Madie Graham & Sam Pickett

Etymology: Speculative Design Research on the Power of Language within Shifting Generational Contexts
/ Madie Graham & Sam Pickett


We are in the continuous process of evaluating our biases and lenses. We are 22-year-old white women studying design. We come from upper-middle class backgrounds and attend a majority white art and design institution within the city of Detroit, Michigan. Madie has moved throughout the United States, living in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Arizona, Utah, Massachusetts, Texas, and Michigan within a divorced household harboring various incomes. Sam grew up primarily in Colorado. In her adult life, she has moved to New York and Michigan. Both have a complicated relationship with space, especially their roles in the field of design and their decision to move to Detroit for their undergraduate degrees.

Our perspectives influence the way we perceive language, and this piece is not void of our personal influence.

The Movement of Language & the Transformation of Self

We had a group conversation recently among design students where we discussed whether humans are inherently good or evil. This discussion kept going in circles until one of our peers, designer and educator, Josh Kim, encouraged us to define good and evil before deciding whether humans are inherently either. Kim reminisced that when facing ideological arguments with his friends they would discuss for hours only to realize at the conclusion that they both were addressing similar topics all along. This lack of shared understandings could have been prevented if they had defined basic terms at the beginning of their conversation. Within these dialogic spaces there appeared to be a confusion of context between each party as entering an exchange with preconceived notions about another’s realities paired with conflicting understandings of meaning builds barriers against effective communication.

Within the adaptive process outlined above, a transformation of self occurs as you reflect upon your known understandings, acknowledge another’s perceptions, and in turn, transform your initial meanings. Through this iterative experience, one recognizes the elasticity of language and the possibility of changing one’s social reality. This conception of dialogue stems from educator and philosopher Paolo Freire in his infamous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire states: “Liberation is praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.”1Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000), 78.

We believe people like Kim and his friends are partaking in the transformational praxis Freire conceives as working through dialogical language. In this light, we have started to pursue a dictionary-like card game of collected definitions through history to facilitate organic dialogue around our encountered meanings.

The Politicization of Language

Like most college-aged students, we struggle to communicate with our parents and our elders; we have felt we are speaking different languages as compared to our conservative counterparts.

Our twenties are a time of extreme change and exploration as we navigate the line of independence and dependence from our upbringing, authority, and various ideologies. In this process of re-writing and re-defining who we are and what we stand for, we would like to establish an open line of communication through models of dialogue. Outlined among the following pages are the starting speculations within our senior thesis as we attempt to critically reflect upon structural and systemic oppression through acknowledging the dynamic and transformational quality of language within shifting contexts. Language-use in new social and cultural situations can challenge existing social structures and often forces us to recognize lived realities beyond our own, while also contending with our roles in society.

Tucker Carlson2Tucker Carlson, “We need to stop using this term,” YouTube, Uploaded by Fox News, December 13, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpkIn0jjeMM. … exemplifies a fear of change within the realm of language:

Line 1 ] “So here’s a fact worth remembering, if you want to think clearly,

if you want to make wise decisions you have to make clear and precise language…

Line 1 Annotation ] Our design research practice has explored the concepts of clarity within the design modernist lens. Clarity often elicits associations with white supremacy and the “normalization” of whiteness as the defining precedent for what is natural and un-obstructed. An essay by Richard Dyer delves deeper into recognizing the ramifications of the white lens.3Cf. Richard Dyer, “The Matter of Whiteness,” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/heike.schotten/readings/Dyer,%20Whiteness.pdf. Accessed 03-03-22. Jan Tschichold, one of the founding fathers of design modernism, even denounced his own clarifying design tenets seeing parallels with fascism.4Cf. Jen Wang, “Now You See It: Helvetica, Modernism and the Status Quo of Design Now You See It: Helvetica, Modernism and the Status Quo of …

Line 2 ] …Here’s another fact worth remembering.

Line 2 Annotation ] People harness the word fact to justify what they are saying without supplying context. This, itself, is a propaganda technique.

Line 3 ]…If by contrast, you want to brainwash and confuse and control an entire population then the first thing you do is ban clear language and substitute it with propaganda that is nonsensical chunks of words glued together for political effect…

Line 3 Annotation ] The idea of clarity in language aligns with white supremacy. In her dissertation, April Baker-Bell discusses African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and outlines how within institutions such as academia, AAVE is considered unclear, nonsensical, and inferior.5Cf. April Baker-Bell, “ ‘Stop Killing My Vibe’: A Critical Language Pedagogy for Speakers of African American Vernacular” (PhD diss., …  In this instance, Tucker Carlson reduces language to a binary of clear and unclear, which reinforces stereotypes and the omnipotence of a very-limited white, male lens.

Line 4 ] …In two sentences, that’s our entire current political landscape.

Line 4 Annotation ] Carlson believes the issue with our political landscape is a function of the clarity of language. We believe the issue instead involves these two contradictory lines of thinking:

Language is stagnant and immovable


language is both a vessel and reflection of change.

For people like Carlson, words become buried in a graveyard, set forever in stone. Learning can’t take place in stagnation; learning must be in motion.

Our Concept Statement
In our progressive conversations with our elders, we notice a disconnect between generations. When it comes to having accessible dialogues with older relatives—whether it is discussing pop culture, politics, or even explaining what we do for a living—we face barriers of understanding. Often, oppressive structures have us believing our social realities are not elastic or transient but stagnant and natural. These forever-states-of-mind can be applied to language; claiming a word has one-set definition, as if there is one objective reality of communication. Language and its meanings shift depending on environmental and cultural contexts; meaning transforms through time. We would like to bring awareness to the contextual differences of language through etymological investigations to provide frameworks of dialogue and shared understanding within communication channels fit for each generation.

Early Example of Research in Action: The Word Bimbo within US Slang

*The study of etymology and linguistics is just as dynamic as language itself. When linguistic research is limited to the written word including journals, letters, newspapers, and other forms of literature it can favor the classes that have full access to the written word. This is not the case, however, with the branch of linguistics that studies phonology, the change of and drift in language though sound / speech. This is especially useful when studying slang terms since we often change our linguistic patterns more quickly within speech than is the case of recorded audio or written perspectives. *

1761: Bambino; Italian; meaning the image of Christ; “baby little child”.

1837: Bimbo; First use in the US; name given to an alcoholic punch within New York, Boston, and New Orleans; the recipe fades around 1895.

1860-1910: Bimbo; popular name for racehorses, dogs, monkeys, and circus elephants; a three-act musical titled “Bimbo of Bombay;” also a name of a popular brother-sister comedy act.

1900: Re-enters American English with different meaning via Italian immigration; meaning “little child” or “child’s doll;” a contraction of “bambino” meaning baby.

1919: Damon Runyon uses bimbo as a slang term to describe a street fighter within his writing; the word in this context meant a “stupid or ineffectual man”.

1920: bimbo begins to mean “floozie,” which came into fruition within the Variety newspaper by staffer Jack Conway; referenced in a song, “My little Bimbo left down on Bamboo isle”6Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “bimbo (n.).” https://www.etymonline.com/word/bimbo. Accessed, 03-03-22.

1980s-1990s: US political sex scandals lead to a surge in popularity of the word with variations like bimbette (1990) and himbo (1988).7“The Bimbo Trope, Explained – Reclaiming,” Uploaded by the Take, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2eoegcgBdw. Accessed 03-03-22.

April 28th, 2009: Bimbofication; submitted on a “Weird Fanart Thread” (fanart being artwork inspired by various forms of pop culture; thread being an online messaging/posting platform); at the time, bimbofication was a fetish and fanart movement where people transformed into hyper-sexualized caricatures of themselves.

May 9th, 2010: Bimbofication; /r/transformation was a sub-Reddit (Reddit being an online forum community platform); the fetish involves people who transform and bimbofication was placed under the approved sub-topics within the thread.8“Bimbofication.” Know Your Meme. https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/subcultures/bimbofication. Accessed 03-03-22.

September 21st, 2015: Bimbofication; Urban Dictionary user, @faultline, defines the word as a sexual fetish and “ The process of transforming into an airheaded slut, perfectly happy to be used and degraded.”9Urban Dictionary, s.v. “bimbofication,” https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=bimbofication. Accessed 03-03-22.

February 9th, 2017: Bimbo; A DeviantArtist, @sortimid, posted an illustration of a blonde-haired woman in heels and a tight dress transforming from a “bimbo” into a de-bimbofied woman with a messy bun and adorned in more “modest” attire. On Twitter, the artwork erupted conversations about bimbo being an anti-feminist slur.

2018: the Bimbofication movement in a positive context; in our synthesis, the word bimbo has rebranded from being anti-feminist to mean a woman who doesn’t feel intelligence classifies worth; they are also not ashamed of valuing their own sexuality or appearance.

2020: the Bimbofication movement has transformed to include all genders and is a way for people to express performative hyper-femininity outside of the former patriarchal lens of bimbo as a slur. Appearance does not indicate intelligence in the reclaiming of bimbo within the modern context.10J. Dickson, “The Bimbo Is Back. Like, for Real!” “https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/bimbo-reclaim-tiktok-gen-z-1092253/.” …


When hearing the word bimbo, Gen Z may reference the movement of bimbofication, while Gen X and Millennials may be more familiar with its sexist 90s origins. To us, bimbo and bimbofication provided a clear example of language’s elasticity. These changing definitions also function in a semiotic space providing a visual language like that of baby Jesus or a fruity cocktail. Visualizations only further the depth of meaning. Bimbo started as a reference to baby Christ, traveled as a fetish, and ended as a feminist tool for empowerment. This word alone elicits various avenues of discussion including religion, immigration, intelligence, appearance, and feminism.

We look forward to expanding our etymological knowledge like bimbo within our thesis card-deck - we are currently researching around 100 words across themes. We anticipate an open course of dialogue amongst ourselves and our older relatives as a starting point for active and collaborative change.