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It started with an e-mail message from subscriber Pete Jones: “Have you come across deprecated with the sense ‘no longer valid or current’?”. He pointed me to a Web site that defined it as “no longer part of the current specification”.

It took a bit of sleuthing to track this down. The glossary item is referring to HTML, the coding system behind the World Wide Web. The formal specification uses deprecated in sentences like “The following elements are deprecated”, and carefully defines what it means by that: “A deprecated element or attribute is one that has been outdated by newer constructs”. The writer is saying that some elements in earlier versions are not actually obsolete but are now disapproved of — deprecated — and should be avoided.

Though this jargon sense is not in any mainstream dictionary, it is actually quite common in specifications of computer languages. The online Jargon File explains it like this:

Said of a program or feature that is considered obsolescent and in the process of being phased out, usually in favor of a specified replacement. Deprecated features can, unfortunately, linger on for many years. This term appears with distressing frequency in standards documents when the committees writing the documents realize that large amounts of extant (and presumably happily working) code depend on the feature(s) that have passed out of favor.

And — among other places — it appears in an Internet standards document (Request for Comments 1158 of May 1990):

In order to better prepare implementors for future changes ... a new term “deprecated” may be used when describing an object. A deprecated object ... is one which must be supported, but one which will most likely be removed from the next version ...

However, the writer of the glossary has misunderstood even this modified sense: one shouldn’t use deprecated elements, therefore deprecated means “no longer part of the current specification”, which is a step too far. However, the process by which deprecated has developed this new sense in computing neatly illustrates one way in which language change occurs — through extension.

Deprecate itself has shifted sense quite substantially down the years. When it came into the language in the early seventeenth century, its sense was strongly influenced by its older cousin deprecation, from Latin precari, to pray. That meant a prayer to ward off something evil or disastrous or to reverse its effects. Robert Lowth, an eighteenth-century Bishop of Winchester, used the verb in this sense of warding off evil in his translation of the book of Isaiah: “Evil shall come upon thee, which thou shalt not know how to deprecate”.

Anything we wish to deprecate we are likely to view with dread, and the verb soon took on a sense of expressing earnest disapproval of something. Over the next century or so that meaning took over so completely that the old idea of prayer disappeared altogether. By the end of the nineteenth century the word had shifted further so that it could also mean disparage, belittle, condemn, or deplore. This wasn’t a big step from the earlier idea, since to disapprove of something is first cousin to disparaging it, but the shift in meaning was criticised by conservative writers, who didn’t like the way it was rapidly encroaching on the ground occupied by depreciate.

This had appeared at about the same time as deprecate, in the seventeenth century, but with the sense of lowering in value — we still use it when we speak of depreciation in the value of our investments. Later it took on the idea of lowering in estimation, to undervalue and hence to belittle.

As recently as 1965 the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage was very firm about not confusing the two words, calling it a blunder. The third edition is less censorious, merely suggesting that writers keep the historical division in mind, and pointing out that depreciate is now largely restricted to the financial sense, with deprecate taking over elsewhere. The New Oxford Dictionary of English agrees.

But that dictionary’s editors would stop short of endorsing “no longer part of the current specification” ... for the moment, anyway.

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Page created 07 Jul 2001