Beyond Words - Language Blog

To Behave, or not to Behave

“Certain things should never be taken for granted, among them your spouse, your mother, the United States Constitution, and the precise meaning of words that are at the heart of your profession,” Natalie Angier writes at the beginning of her article “When ‘What Animals Do’ Doesn’t Seem to Cover It” in the July 20 edition of the New York Times. The article goes on to explore the definition of behavior in regards to science, especially that of animal behavior. What exactly defines behavior and how do we categorize it?

Daniel Levitis, a doctoral candidate at University of California, Berkeley, is the man asking this linguistic question, and he’s not even a linguist—he’s a zoologist. While working as a teaching assistant for an animal behavior class, Levitis first heard the term “behavior” defined as “what animals do.” After consulting the textbook and several professors, Levitis realized that no one could offer a final, comprehensive definition of behavior—it’s definition was always assumed. Embarking on a full-out linguistic project, Levitis designed an online questionnaire that asked scientists thirteen “potentially diagnostic” statements about behavior and asked the survey takers to decide if a particular statement was behavior or not (one such question asked if “behavior always involves movement”). The second half of the survey asked participants to decide if a certain natural phenomena was behavior (i.e. “a sponge pumps water to gather food”).

After tallying the surveys, Levitis was left with a few surprises. Over half of the questioned scientists contradicted themselves and no single item on the survey had a 100% consensus. Even without overarching agreement, Levitis attempted a working definition: “the internally coordinated response that an individual or a group makes to a stimulus.” A response, of course, can be inaction or action, this stimulus from within the individual or from without. But does this definition match the etymology of the word?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word behavior (n.) comes from the verb, behave: to bear, comport, or conduct oneself or to conduct oneself in regard to. Behave appeared in the 15th century as a combination of be and have, a way to express a qualified sense of have. This form equals the modern German sich behaben. Interestingly, the Old English behabban is comparable to the Old High German bihabên (be + habben, to hold or to have, in the sense of encompassing containing, detaining — which sheds some light on the saying please, contain yourself.). However, there is no historical connexion between behabban and behave.

Behavior was thus formed by the combination of behave with the havour: “the fact of having; possession; a possession, property; estate, substance, wealth.” Havour is originally from the French aveir which means “having, possession, property, estate, wealth, etc.,” now commonly avoir, “to have.” First used in English as the Norman aveyr, the word havour was introduced as a variant to have and having in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the 16th century havour took along with its definition of possession that of behavour. Subsequently both words substituted –iour for –eour and the original sense of possession became obsolete and haviour became synonymous with behaviour, and it is now often used as a shortened version of the word.

The entire OED entry for behaviour gives quite a spread of definitions to the word. Behaviour is “the manner of conducting oneself in the external relations of life; demeanour, deportment, bearing, manners,” as well as “conduct, general practice, course of life; course of action towards or to others, treatment of others.” In the case of Levitis’ study, the sixth definition proves a bit more useful, “the manner in which a thing acts under specified conditions or circumstances, or in relation to other things,” but this is actually a transferred meaning from havour. It seems as if even the Oxford English Dictionary can’t agree on a definition, and that behavior does, indeed, carry many shades of meaning.

The OED does show a consensus of sorts, however. It seems that in order to behave or exhibit behaviour, there must be an action (or inaction) conducted in relation to some other individual or thing. Behaviour can be good manners at the dinner table or, as Thomas Huxley wrote in 1878, “the behaviour of the water which drains off a flat coast of mud.” This latter example, of course, is exactly what Levitis finds problematic in the scientific world. Can water behave? According to Levitis’ working definition—maybe?

To read Angier’s full article or to take the survey Levitis used in his study, go here.