Conflating the Issues

I’m once again dipping into the miasma that is political language for this week’s vocabulary word: conflate.

It’s a word on the march, or at least under stress: it’s got a mostly neutral past, but it’s been slowly taking on negative connotations, especially in recent decades.

My personal exposure to this word led me to believe that it was of recent origin – a term with a history similar to normalcy or propaganda, both of which date to the 19th century but gained popularity only in the 20th (normalcy was used in Warren G. Harding’s 1920 campaign, and has lingered in American political speech ever since – Kennedy in 1960, for example, or G.H.W. Bush in 1989). It turns out my belief was wrong.

Conflate (which I will conflate here with two other forms, conflated and conflation) actually goes back much further: OED has an example from 1583.  Back then, the meaning was straightforward, from the Latin, and meant simply “blown together” (by the wind) or “melted or fused together.” In colloquial use, conflation indicates that two (or more) things have been blended or mixed together.

In contemporary usage, however, the definition has started to shift. While neither OED nor AHD show confuse as one of conflate‘s definitions, Merriam-Webster does. It’s an interesting potential misinterpretation (for dictionary users): because “melt or fuse together” is one of the definitions of conflate, confuse in this case could simply be taken as the literal Latin (“to fuse with”). But that’s not what confuse means in contemporary English. It means to baffle, to confound, to muddle. Which seems to be exactly what’s going on with this word.

You won’t encounter conflate outside of political contexts much these days. That’s either the reason, or a side effect of, why common usage has taken a negative turn: the word is seldom used in a positive or neutral sense, but instead highlights a negative or careless blending of two otherwise disconnected ideas.

Here’s an example of how conflation plays out in practice. During this (seemingly without end) presidential primary season, it’s common to observe conflation in action. When a candidate makes a speech denouncing increased taxes on the wealthy, because it will hurt job creation, that’s conflation: there’s really no good connection between one issue (tax rates of the wealthy) and the other (job creation); and while both ideas deserve discussion, they shouldn’t be presented as one and the same.

Or: in the coverage of the Supreme Court’s review of the Affordable Care Act, reporters, commentators, and even some of the attorneys frequently conflated the ideas of health care and health insurance, treating these two very different issues as a single idea when in this case they’re probably best kept as distinct as possible.

Below is a quickly collected handful of headlines using conflate. All are political, although I made no effort to restrict my searches to political topics:

“Liberals Deliberately Conflate Extension of Bush Tax Rates With New Cuts”
“Conflating Obama’s efforts with Bush’s”
“Santorum spokesman denies Obama-Ahmadinejad conflation in new ad”
“Hannity conflates reconciliation, ‘nuclear option’ to accuse Democrats of ‘hypocrisy'”
“Fleischer Conflates Charge That Bush Lost in 2000 With Wingnut Obama ‘Birther’ Allegations”

It’s simple enough to find more of the same. If you read through those headlines carefully, it begins to become clear why a reader can make the “mistake” of thinking that the word means confuse. Out of context, with only those headlines to go on, if a reader didn’t already know what conflate is “supposed to” mean, then guessing that it means confuse would be reasonable. It doesn’t help that both words start with the same four letters, either.

While researching, I’ve come across a very small number of indignant comments about conflate‘s shift in meaning (on the way to becoming synonymous with confuse). These struck me mostly as prescriptionist venting, perhaps with a touch of assertionism. There’s very little point arguing for purity when the language has already moved on.

From an editing point of view, I don’t have a strong recommendation. But as the headline examples above show, even when an author clearly means one definition, conflate is a word that seems to attract ambiguity like a sweater attracts cat hair. It’s very easy to think that you’ve used it precisely, only to find that you’ve actually left your wording open to a different interpretation. If that risk bothers you, then simply avoid using conflate at all.

It’s always interesting to watch a word shift in meaning rapidly, in this case within a generation or so. Conflate looks to be one such word. Enjoy the ride.

= = =

Acknowledgement: Alert followers of this blog will have noticed that there was no usage post on Monday. While I haven’t shifted to a once-per-week schedule, with the semester nearing it’s end, summer approaching, and who knows what other unpredictables looming, I might skip a post now and then. When that happens, I’ll try to be sure that the posts that  make it up here are even better, to make up for the reduced content.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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11 Responses to Conflating the Issues

  1. Dave Allcott says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful writing. I was wondering what what happening with the word “conflation”, and particularly why the phenomenon of conflation has not been clearly addressed in our political dialog.

    The phenomenon of conflation itself is an important mechanism in forming and communicating mental models (in association with aggregation and synthesis). Analysis of framing and metaphor selection reveals how conflation as a technique can be used to obscure situations of fact, as well as provide useful simplification. In propaganda conflation provides a mechanism that makes it difficult or impossible to talk about what one wants to hide. I posit that much of our national political dialog consists of intentional conflations.

    Another way to hide phenomena is to hijack the word that names it. This is happening with the word conflate. If we lose the original definition of the word, and it becomes a synonym of “confuse”, we make it much more difficult to reveal its detrimental occurrence in our dialog.

    -Dave

    • Great points, Dave. As I was writing this post, I had the occasional thought that I was abetting the “conflation = confusion” idea. It’s too good a word to lose entirely to bad political speech, so I hope that it can still be saved.

  2. David Brower says:

    Timely! I was just noting the recent/current popularity of the word, noting the implication of perjorative that was creeping in. It seems used often to suggest an intentional tar-brush to bring things together for somewhat devious effect. In general, it seems to be used to infer the conflator is creating a false-equivalency with a straw man — but making the accusation in a somewhat sly way, since the word itself is neutral.

    I’m also wondering about when and how this started creeping into frequent usage. I’m guessing not more than two to three years.

    • I don’t know exactly when it started to creep in that direction, either, David. But I really started to see it used that way during the Bush (II) administration.
      If pressed, I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on any particular incident. But I’d be comfortable saying that I started to notice it being used frequently (and with some slight negative connotations) sometime between 9/11/01 and the Iraq invasion (early 2003). I say only “slight” negative here, because the actual usage was usually fairly neutral (‘Bush has Al Qaeda terrorism with Saddam’s bad behavior.’), while the actual stories the word appeared in tended to be negative (‘This is a bad policy.’). The word would get tarred with guilt by association in a larger sense.

  3. lazycritic says:

    This analysis doesn’t strike me as true. When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, ‘conflate’ was used a fair amount by my professors and it was almost always in a pejorative sense to instruct students to be careful to split concepts apart to analyze them more closely (for example, the reification fallacy seems like a form of conflation). Plugging a quick ‘conflate philosophy’ search into Google Scholar shows pejorative uses by philosophers going back into the 1990s and probably much earlier (1976 is the top hit, but it has no quote).

    • Thanks, lazy. I don’t claim omniscience. This blog tends more to practical contemporary usage, not exhaustive analysis.
      Your own experience — with the term being used negatively farther back, at least in philosophy — adds to the knowledge base. I wouldn’t be surprised if occasional negative uses went back into the early 20th century (but I haven’t dug that deeply, and at this moment I don’t have the time to do the research).

  4. Steve Case says:

    I found my way to your blog and very good discussion because I read a comment about a work shop on Sea Level as follows:

    Not sure this [workshop on sea level] is a great idea. This plan could backfire when the students learn the difference between ‘Relative Sea Level’ and ‘Absolute Sea Level’, and how politicians and journalists intentionally conflate the two to fool the public.

    It’s best to keep these students in the dark. No really.

    I think conflate is a little more precise than confuse. You wouldn’t conflate Celsius and Fahrenheit but you can surely confuse them. And yes it’s a pejorative.

  5. heavyduti says:

    I know that I’m late to this party but I think your commentary is brilliant and extremely relevant to the current primary campaign in the US and the non-stop pundit-commentary on the minutiae of every issue and the parsing of every word uttered by the candidates. (Note, I cannot use the oft used term ‘punditry’ without gagging.)

  6. Mic Grover says:

    Your thoughts are still timely after 4.25 years. I also work in information technology as you occasionally do. I send / receive numerous email messages every business day. One of my peers recently accused me of conflating “the choice between configuration options with the choice of competing vendors” in an email message, and he was right. I thanked and complimented him, not only for his sharp eye but also for his use of ‘conflate’ correctly, and outside of politics. Perhaps we’ll begin to see the word with its correct meaning in even more endeavors.

  7. Pingback: Conflation and the Pope | Words of Truth

  8. Dan Olsen says:

    I’m late to the party, but I’m surprised that it’s not obvious to that the negative connotation comes from conflation being used in the jargon of (classical) formal logic, where it is expressly used to call out a particular type of logical fallacy, within the other fallacies of ambiguity.

    Many other jargon terms used with specific meaning from classical logic have been co-opted into the common use (sometimes with disastrous loss of meaning e.g. “begging the question” is almost never used correctly).

    It’s not surprising that within politics there would be heavy use of terms from classical logic, as (historically at least) most have politicians have been very well educated in classical thinking and especially trained in effective argumentation through both logic and rhetoric. When the opposition’s argument is called out as a fallacy of conflation, that usage is going to have an extremely negative connotation.

    Outside of formal logic, you are correct that there is no particular reason that ‘conflate’ should have a negative connotation, but as an old and obscure word most people first encounter it as it has been used in politics and specifically in logical argumentation where it has long been specifically used to put a name on an embarrassingly incorrect mixing rather than desired blending of elements.

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