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.
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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.