That’s the way the cornbread crumbles*

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.


11 responses to “That’s the way the cornbread crumbles*

  1. Hmm. Well, I’m a creative writer so I’ll confess that I’m more interested in a word’s vibe than a strict delineation of when it may be used. In my first book, I had a line about a stand of shivering aspen, which seemed just right to me. But my copy editor hated my use of the word shiver, and I had to break out the dictionary and show him that it wasn’t necessarily wrong. (Stet!!)

    Anyway. Here at the office I notice all the managers using the word “share” in an odd way: “As I shared with you, the policy is. . .” Did you share that with me? That makes it sound as if we’ve got two forks stuck in a wedge of chocolate cake. Maybe you simply told me what the policy is. (For the 249th time this week.)

    • Hahaha! I associate “share” with communal lesbian households I have lived in, particularly with my Quaker roommate. She used the word “share” a lot.

      The aspen issue is interesting. Shaking aspens, of course, are a real thing. So shivering could be a creative reinterpretation. I wouldn’t have queried it.

      Having to balance between a word’s vibe and delineation, as you say, is one of the best/most challenging parts of my job.

  2. There are two local colloqualisms that set my teeth on edge, even though I’ve lived in the midwest for 19 years.
    “I’m going by Susie’s house.” Going to? Coming from? No. “By”.
    “Susie borrowed me the money?” Grrrr. Lent! Lent! Lent!

    Other than those, upon beginning the typing process of my WIP it’s best I wash the windows in my glass house and put away the stones. “Is that even a word?” “Were you drunk when you wrote this?” “That can’t mean what you want it to mean.”
    Is pseudonovel a word as well? Because I need a genre…

  3. The popular interpretation of “evolution,” according to science writer Brian Goodwin, is viewed through a recapitulation of Judeo-Christian morality. We are born in muck as sinners / mono-cellular organisms and, through our works / faith / selective pressures are saved / evolved into the elect / humanity, which is the loftiest of all possible roles.
    The thing is, evolution doesn’t force change towards “better” — it forces change for the immediate conditions. In some cases, this does work out well for species, like the development of the human fore-brain. The adaptability of the human organism has been very successful in the prevailing conditions of the last 100,000 years. But the dinosaurs were also fantastically well adapted for their environment for nearly 200 million years — they were the pinnacle of evolution for thousands of times longer than we have been.
    This argument is found unconvincing by many because, of course, there aren’t big ol’ dinosaurs wandering around anymore. We even use “dinosaur” in the popular parlance to describe something old, obsolete, or inflexible. So, in those cases, it’s best to trot out our friend the spider, who has occupied the planet for 300 million years. If evolution is always pushing for better, and we are the apex of that development, how come there are still spiders laughing at us and smirking from the corners of their webs after all this time?
    (At this point I must conclude that if I had a point, I don’t remember what it was other than irritation at how people use the word “evolution.”)

  4. 1. “important critter” Love.
    2. Have you ever seen F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing pre-copyeditor? You’d think he was barely literate.
    3. The interactions between David Foster Wallace and his editors/copyeditors etc., are my favorite. They consisted of a mark from the editor and a twenty-page missive from him ending in the word “STET!” I imagine they drank heavily…

      • Would a copyeditor be able to prevent replying to the wrong post? Geesh.
        Sources, sources.

        FSW-Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald –
        Matthew Joseph Bruccoli. The difference between first draft and final would give anyone hope.

        I may be able to find a link on the DFW. I’ll be back (to the correct post) if I find it. It’s so fantastic…

  5. I finally have my word (yes, I know I’m a little late): solution. It’s everywhere. I drove by a sign advertising windows with the slogan “Outside Solutions.” It’s a window, not a conundrum. Have I been puzzling over how to let light into my house while keeping wind, cold and bugs out? No. An automated machine company advertises “Automated Solutions.” Wouldn’t equipment or machine work? Every software program is a solution. I once rewrote a technical manual that used solution in every shape, way, or form in each paragraph and had to fight to edit even a few out. Hate that word.

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