Stephen Jay Gould once gave me (and the rest of the audience) some great editorial advice about the use of the word “evolution.” It’s a word you see everywhere. Businesses use it to lend a sense of importance to their products. Designers use it to give themselves a pseudoscientific** edge. But it does not mean what you think it means.
According to Gould, evolution is a progression, but not necessarily toward something better, just something different. It is also a natural process. A lot of people use the word “evolve” when they mean “develop.” If someone is causing the change to happen then it’s not evolution. (Don’t bring up God here, this is an editorial blog.) And so I pay attention to the use of the word.
But the dictionary disagrees with Mr. Gould. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about the matter.
2. a: a process of change in a certain direction :unfolding
b: the action or an instance of forming and giving something off :emission
c (1) : a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state :growth (2) : a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance
So who’s right? Should we use the word evolution strictly in a scientific sense? Or should we go with Merriam-Webster, as I so often do, and allow it to have a broader definition? I think it depends on the context. If you’re editing for science, maybe the stricter definition should be used in deference to Mr. (Dr.?) Gould. If you’re editing a craft book maybe you can be more lax.
Am I being too prescriptive? What are your least favorite inaccuracies that have become accepted?
* You’re right, this title has little to do with the content herein. But it’s a line from Gillian Welch’s new album that’s stuck in my head.
** Why, yes, “pseudoscience” is my favorite word.