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In the mass of news stories about the American spy plane that had to force-land in China recently, the word that appeared most often to describe the equipment on board was sophisticated. It may indeed have been “developed to a high degree of complexity”, as the dictionaries have it, but sophisticated started out meaning something rather different.

Sophisticated is closely connected with sophistry. Though that word in turn came from the Greek sophos meaning wise, sophists in classical Greece — around the fourth century BC — were itinerant teachers of philosophy and rhetoric who didn’t enjoy a good reputation. They were sceptical about the possibility of achieving genuine knowledge and were thought by many to be more concerned with winning arguments than arriving at the truth. Plato considered them to be a dishonest bunch of lecturers, and sophistry came to mean fallacious reasoning.

In medieval times, the Latin verb sophisticare was invented with a related sense of dishonest tampering with something. It was applied particularly to traders who added foreign substances to expensive goods to bulk them out and so increase their profits. The earliest example we know of refers to merchants meddling with pepper, then a rare and valuable spice. So the verb from its first appearance in English meant adulterate. Later writers applied it to those who added cheap wines to bulk out expensive ones, and to those who adulterated tobacco with the sweepings of the floor. In the early nineteenth century, it was hard to find a basic foodstuff on sale in London markets that hadn’t been sophisticated in some way: alum in bread, roasted acorns in coffee, dried hedgerow leaves in tea, and so on.

Curiously, while all this was going on, sophisticated itself was shifting sense. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, it could refer to a thing that had been deprived of its primitive or natural state, and so rendered artificial. But the real shift was going on with unsophisticated. Early on this meant something that was genuine, but then moved to refer to somebody who was in a natural and unspoiled state, and so was ingenuous or inexperienced. It was only around the end of the nineteenth century that it began to be possible to use sophisticated as the opposite of unsophisticated in this sense, for somebody worldly-wise, well versed in life’s ways and who had a subtle and discriminating nature. And it was applied to theories, techniques and equipment even more recently — only from the middle of last century on.

Sophistication in this sense is a truly modern phenomenon.

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Page created 05 May 2001