Monday, December 19, 2011

From Vice to Virtue - The Changing Definition of "Sophistication"

Today, to be called "sophisticated" is considered a compliment.  In fact, it seems to be a virtue to be aspired to.  Here is an example from: 

"...I resumed thinking. What exactly is sophistication? The things that we deem to epitomize sophistication—going to the symphony, ballet, dressing up, sipping fine champagne and delighting in witty conversation while daintily snacking on tiny foods, etc.—are they even relevant anymore?" 

This was not always so.  In the not too distant past, to be called sophisticated was to be insulted.  Here is the definition of "sophistication" taken from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language(3rd edition, 1766) at : 

SOPHISTICATION: Adulteration; not genuineness

Sophistication is the act of counterfeiting or adulterating any thing with what is not so good for the sake of unlawful gain...Quincy.

The drugs and simples sold in the shops generally are adulterated by the fraudulent avarice of the sellers, especially if the preciousness may make their sophistication very beneficial...Boyle 

There is no hint of anything good about sophistication in Johnson's entry.  Now contrast this with the definitions provided by Wordnet, the online dicitonary maintained by Princeton University.

S: (n) edification, sophistication (uplifting enlightenment)
S: (n) sophism, sophistry, sophistication (a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone)
S: (n) sophistication (being expert or having knowledge of some technical subject) "understanding affine transformations requires considerable mathematical sophistication"
S: (n) sophistication, worldliness, mundaneness, mundanity (the quality or character of being intellectually sophisticated and worldly through cultivation or experience or disillusionment)
S: (n) sophistication (falsification by the use of sophistry; misleading by means of specious fallacies) "he practiced the art of sophistication upon reason"

It seems that Wordnet is giving us both the old definition of sophistication as a vice, and the new sense, where it is a virtue.  However, I have only heard the term used as a compliment, except on a very few occasions.  I think that very few people know that it once had a negative meaning, even if they are familiar with related terms like "sophistry", which are still generally understood to be negative.

This is a pretty extreme example of how a term can come to signify a concept that is in direct opposition to the concept it originally signified.  I am not able to trace how this happened, but I am sure somebody knows.  Perhaps it is in the book whose appalingly written review can be found at 

A lesson that can be derived here is that when analysts encounter a term used in a technical context, they should not expect it to signify the same concept as in common usage.  If "sophistication" can change in this extreme manner, so can anything.

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