Thursday, November 26, 2009


Word of the day: Conflate (v)- to mistake two or more separate things as being only one thing, generally in a way that leads to further logical flaws.

from Latin con- (together) -flate (blow, as in inflate).

I'll give you a few examples of conflation:

There was, some years ago, a debate as to what to call that portion of the American electorate who wanted the US government to be run according to the precepts of the right-wing evangelical clergy in the US. Should they be the Evangelical voters, the Christian Right, the Values Voters? It seemed to many on the political left that we should simply use the word which by definition means, "those who advocate for government according to the rules of a particular religion." This word of course is "theocrats.' Leaders of this movement for Christian government, when asked about the term theocrat would reply that this word comes from Greek theos, meaning god and kratos, meaning rule or regime, and therefore theocracy is direct rule by God, and so they weren't advocating for theocracy, merely rule in the name of and in line with their understanding of the will of God. It is a common trick by those who wish to redefine a word for political or rhetorical purposes to conflate etymology with denotation.

In another example from the news, a large species of Atlantic ray, the flapper skate, has been fished nearly to extinction. It had been conflated with the blue skate, a smaller, faster breeding distinct species, such that for several decades we thought the two species were one, with the flapper skates merely being the larger individuals. As the number of larger individuals declined, no legal protections were put in place, as the relatively numerous smaller individuals indicated reproduction was still sufficient to maintain the population. Oops. Now that the two species have been deconflated, we know that the flapper skate is all but gone.

Finally, on this thanksgiving day, let us not conflate sweet potatoes, which are commonly eaten in North America, with yams, which are not. Whether orange or white, they are sweet potatoes.

So what, you might ask is the difference between conflation and confusion? The answer is that conflation is a specific type of confusion, one that is worth being aware of in its own right. Having a name for a logical flaw, in my experience, makes it easier to spot it.

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