Monday, 14 January 2013


Pronunciation: /ˈsɒfɪst/

a paid teacher of philosophy and rhetoric in Greece in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, associated in popular thought with moral scepticism and specious reasoning. A person who reasons with clever but false arguments.

Pronunciation: /ˈsɒfɪz(ə)m/

a clever but false argument, especially one used deliberately to deceive.

Although we still encounter the words sophist, sophistry and sophism, they aren’t all that common. Google’s NGram Viewer suggests sophist and sophism have become less and less common since 1800, even though there are more sophists and more examples of sophism than ever.

Modern politics is riddled with paid sophists who are even advised by other paid sophists, but there is little to be gained in pointing it out in those terms. The language slips from our grasp, words decay, ideas decay with them.

The mainstream media pump out enormous quantities of sophistry. Charities thrive on it. Celebrities wallow in it. The BBC revels in it.

It’s almost uncanny that such useful words should slip out of the language just when we need them most. Just when certain elements of a classical education would be so handy.

Take education for example. We could easily teach kids about sophistry by linking it to the ancient Greeks. We could introduce kids to Socrates via his battles with sophistry and sophists. We could help them understand just how prevalent these games have always been - and how destructive.

There are numerous examples for them to get their teeth into - right up to the present day. Climate change is riddled with sophistry, as are all manner of good-for-you propaganda messages.

Maybe kids are taught all about sophistry, but I suspect not. I’m not a teacher, but somehow I have a suspicion that teachers don't so much teach kids about sophistry as suffer educational sophistries delivered from high and mighty sophists.

Looping back to my earlier point – it’s frustrating that these useful words have slipped away from common parlance. Their accuracy and pejorative flavour, their ready application to modern life would be so useful. Tools for rational discourse - without them, all we have is the discourse.

One is almost tempted to see such language changes as a kind of internal social censorship. As sophistry invades our modes of communication, the invasion becomes slightly more difficult to express.

Unplanned Newspeak? Almost.


James Higham said...

Masters of Sophistry [in onesies].

Yvonne said...

I am concerned about the over use of the word 'huge'. Listen to the BBC and you will find that it is used to described anything from schooling to climate, it no longer has a meaning it has been so fudged. A good thesaurus will give many other adjectives that could be used instead. Do you think this is deliberate?

Demetrius said...

The word "sophisticated" is now regarded as a compliment. But lets not argue about it.

A K Haart said...

James - and they listen to nobody else but sophists.

Yvonne - I imagine it is a case of imitation. The use of the word "huge" seems to have increased rapidly from about 1980.

Demetrius - it is, especially when it comes to gadgets.