Now this is strange. Webster 1913 says that if something is sophisticated, it is 'not genuine' or 'adulterated'. Yet when we talk of 'sophistication' nowadays, we think of complexity, refinement and achievement. The word's root is from the Greek for 'wise', sophos, which then gave rise to 'sophist', a wise man, skilled in elaborate arguments - this word also refers to a specific group of ancient 'natural philosophers' that Plato believed simply argued for the sake of it. Hence, sophistry becomes the phenomenon whereby someone sufficiently articulate can construct a convincing argument for something that may in fact be completely false. A dictionary definition of sophistry is 'a plausible but fallacious argument'. So from 'wise man', we have 'deliberately false argument' (from

The verb 'to sophisticate' came to English via Latin (sophisticare) and meant 'to adulterate' and was applied to traders who would add cheap substances to their goods to bulk them out (such as adding floor sweepings to tobacco). Very many goods were sophisticated in Victorian London.

Our present usage of the word comes (apparently) from the change in the meaning 'unsophisticated' from something that is genuine and unadulterated to natural, unspoiled and naive. Hence its opposite, sophisticated, came to mean worldly-wise, subtle and complex. From the 1950s it was applied to scientific theories and technology, and has, one could say, come full circle from the original root's meaning.

Thanks to

So*phis"ti*cate (?), So*phis"ti*ca`ted (?), a.

Adulterated; not pure; not genuine.

So truth, while only one supplied the state, Grew scare and dear, and yet sophisticate. Dryden.


© Webster 1913.

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