Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CONFLATE....Over at Matt Yglesias' site, commenter Petey takes a break from accusing Matt of disingenuousness in order to pose a linguistic observation:

I'm slowly becoming more and more obsessed with the word conflate.

In my mind, although the dictionary doesn't support this, it specifically means an incorrect melding. The dictionary just defines it as any old fusing or melding.

I'm guessing my definition is the common usage. I've never seen anyone use the word who wasn't implying an incorrect melding.

My obsession comes from how often the word is useful in political discussion. If you're trying to identify the fallacy the administration keeps repeating in tying the Iraq invasion to the 9/11, what works better than saying they're conflating two separate issues?

Probably lots of things, actually, since most people have never heard the word "conflate" in their lives. In fact, two years ago I noted that I had never heard the word before in my life until sometime in 2002, and then I suddenly noticed it popping up everywhere.

So what's the deal? Is it just a favored word among political chatterers? (Though I had never seen it in 20 years of op-ed reading.) Among the extremely well educated? Among the blogosphere?

Or is it just one of those words that suddenly seems just right to describe key aspects of our current political climate, sort of like "Orwellian" and "weapons of mass destruction program related activities"? Any ideas?

UPDATE: From comments, it appears that "conflate" is a common word in academic circles, which sounds about right to me. Since the blogosphere is positively lousy with academics, it seems reasonable that perhaps this is the source of its popularity here.

But how about the outside world? As a check, I just did a quick Nexis search for "conflate" and its derivatives in the New York Times, and there's been no increase in usage over the past five years. So apparently it really is just an academia-inspired blog thing.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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