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shameless pleading

Conflate

Ask Chuck Norris! He was there.

Dear Word Detective: A few years ago, I began hearing a “new” word, new to me, anyway. It was everywhere! That word is “conflate.” Am I wrong in thinking it was made up to fill a need? Seems like a mash-up of “confuse” and “inflate,” although I don’t know how “inflate” could apply. “Confuse” I get, as I interpret “conflate” to mean to mistakenly compare one item with another. Has this younger generation made up another word? Or has “conflate” merely gained popularity, especially in discussions of a scientific nature? — Bunny Reynolds.

Dagnabbit, are those whippersnappers fiddling with our language again? I swan, I can’t abide any more foolishness from those hooligans. Twerking and tweeting and selfing all day. Take away their electronic telephones, I say.

Onward. This is an interesting question. On the one hand, I too have noticed an increased use of “conflate” recently, at least in mass media. I don’t remember hearing it at all when I was growing up, and, according to the Google Ngram viewer (which tracks occurrences of words in books that happen to be in the Google Books database) from 1800 to the present, usage of “conflate” in printed books piddled along at nearly zero until it started to rise in the 1960s and then shot up between 1980 and 2000. So you’re correct that the relative popularity of “conflate” is recent.

But, as the preceding paragraph implies, the word itself is not new. In fact, “conflate” first appeared in English way back in the mid-16th century. “Conflate” comes from the Latin “conflare” (“con,” together, plus “flare,” to blow), and originally meant “to fuse or blow together, to combine, to put together from several sources.” By the late 19th century, “conflate” had narrowed a bit and was primarily used to mean (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) “To combine or fuse two variant readings of a text into a composite reading; to form a composite reading or text by such fusion.” Today “conflate” is commonly used more broadly to mean “to confuse two things by combining them or equating them” (e.g., “Buzzfeed has been criticized for conflating real news and the antics of the Kardashians.”). “Conflation” is the particular kind of “confusion” that comes when disparate items or events are combined into one, resulting in “confusing” what actually happened or was said, which brings us, of course, to Brian Williams, aka The Great Conflator.

In early 2015, NBC News anchor Williams was embroiled in a media fracas when he recounted his story of being in a helicopter that was struck by a rocket propelled grenade over Iraq in 2003, a misfortune that had actually befallen a chopper flying an hour ahead of his. Long story short (and it is a complex situation), Williams eventually said that he had “conflated” two separate incidents and apparently “misremembered” what had happened. Given that most people believed he had simply lied, that excuse didn’t fly (he was suspended for six months and then banished to MSNBC). More importantly for this discussion, his high-profile use of “conflate” sent the word rocketing to the top of the list of words being looked up in the Merriam-Webster.com online dictionary. So the good news is that more people now know what “conflate” means. The bad news may be that they’re going to use it to explain their fibs.

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