Saturday, April 13, 2013

Word of the Day: “sophistical”

Morris Cohen & Ernest Nagel,  An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (1934), p. 381, chapter “Sophistical Refutations”:

The word “sophist”, which originally denoted a wise or learned man (like the word “savant”) has, through historical accidents, come to mean one who argues to make the worse seem the better cause.

Savant itself has survived intact in its original French, in the sense of ‘scientist’;   but in English has suffered a sad fate, becoming a synonym of idiot-savant.  The latter is a precise term, and very useful, though a bit long;  yet the promotion of its second member to synonomy -- and with it, the destruction of a fine old word -- is probably due more to Politial Correctness, since nowadays one is not permitted to apply the term idiot to those who (in the traditional medical usage) are in fact idiots, but only to fools.

pejoration.  We have seen how the pejoration of savant came about -- a trajectory peculiar to this term.  But what of sophist, and its (commoner and) equally pejorative derivatum, sophistry?  (Btw -- pronounce these as SOH-fist, vs. SAH-fis-tree.)
Our authors dismiss the causes as “historical accidents”;  but while that term might reasonably apply to the special fate (in English only) of savant, in the case of sophist, there is rather more regularity at work. 
Compare the semantic trajectories of casuistry, dogma, and pedant, which originally were positive words.

Two explanations immediately suggest themselves, which, though polarly opposed, may yet both be in play:
(a)  Intellectuals (boo) tend to be given to hand-waving flim-flam.
(b)  Intellectuals (yay) are insufficiently appreciated by the peasantry.

But there is yet a third, more sinuous path to semantic devolution, well illustrated by the term cretin.
The term has latterly fallen out of use;  whether from the taboo that successively struck its near-synonyms idiot and imbecile, I know not.   But its origin is extraordinary:  the word is an etymological doublet of Christian.
So meteoric a decline(**) cannot be explained by parallels to (a) and (b), in particular since it took place entirely within Christian communities:  we’re not talking about some City College intellectuals deploring the nescience of the Bronx.   And the pejoration proceeded, by what only intitially appears a paradox, by its seeming opposite:  euphemism.   This original use of Christian was not to defame the village idiot, but to express compassion.
The sinking of well-intended euphemisms to sneer-terms  is inevitable, so long as popular attitudes to the referents remain unchanged.  Every so often the Speech Police come along and tell us not to use this word or that, but this neologism instead.  For a while the civic-minded comply, while the playgrounds simply scoff:  “That’s -- so -- gay …”

(**) For some reason, people usually speak rather of meteoric rise.  Now, rocket-like rise would make sense;  but meteors have no internal engines, and they obey the law of gravity.  They …. fall, folks ….


Interesting as well, and quite different, is the disparate evolution of the derived adjectives, sophistical and sophisticated.  The former word is now rare, but, to the extent that it is used, is pejorative;  how closely it is any longer tied in speakers’ minds with the common term sophistry, is unclear. Sophisticated, by contrast, is a word of common currency, and quite unsplattered by the derogatory implications of sophist and its other derivata.   This, despite the fact that, by its very meaning, it seems ripe for the sort of social decline that struck genteel and (in some contexts) refined, instead, it retains the admiring overtones  still found in German raffiniert.

For other cases where bland word-endings pack a semantic whallop, check out these essays:

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