Saturday, April 21, 2007

On Sophistication

I was talking to a friend last week about the 1988 Neutralizing Homelessness article by Peter Marcuse, which, to me, is the Rosetta Stone for understanding federal policy on homelessness. I said the Ten Year Plan approach is an incredibly sophisticated means of defining the issue and controlling the way it gets discussed.

Most of us think of sophistication as an uptown Cole Porter kind of thing, but that's only when the word is used as a noun. When employed as a verb, as in to sophisticate, things get more interesting.

My friend said it came from the 16th century, and describes a process where hops and barley were replaced in beer with inferior ingredients, and that it means, basically, to weaken or water down. I said that it must come from the Greek, sophistes. These were the guys that Socrates liked to debate, and of which Aristophanes made fun, who were agile in rhetoric and able to make the true false and the false true. So, in this sense, I guessed, to sophisticate would be to cloud something in complication.

It turns out that my friend's beer definition comes from Nathanial Knott's Advice of a Seaman, published in 1634. "The brewers have gotten the art to sophisticate beer with broom instead of hops, and ashes instead of malt, and (to make it look the more lively) to pickle it with salt water, so that whilst it is new, it shall seemingly be worthy of praise, but in one month wax worse than stinking water." This was a tongue in cheek description of the terrible beer that was the general fare on long sea voyages.

So one of the meanings of the word is to alter and make impure, as with the intention to deceive, as in adulterate. It also means to cause to become less simple or straightforward; to, once again, mislead or deceive. The archaic meaning, says Merriam-Webster, is to corrupt, through sophistry.

So to say that something, like federal policy on homelessness for example, is sophisticated, isn't always to pay a compliment.

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