Our current senses of sophisticated, meaning either refined, cultured or highly developed, complicated, are surprisingly recent. The application of the word to people meaning experienced, refined can only be dated to 1895, when it appears in Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure:
Though so sophisticated in many things she was such a child in others that this satisfied her.
The sense applied to things that are complex, advanced is even more recent. From C. S. Lewis’s 1945 science fiction novel That Hideous Strength:
The man was so very allusive and used gesture so extensively that Mark’s less sophisticated modes of communication were almost useless.
The noun sophisticate, meaning a worldly, cultured person, is from 1923.
Other senses of the adjective are older, however. Sophisticated originally meant mixed with a foreign substance, adulterated or altered from a natural state; a sense that dates to at least 1607, when it appears in Thomas Dekker’s play The Whore of Babylon:
The drinke euen in that golden cup, they sweare
Is wine sophisticated, that does runne
Low on the lees of error.
And when applied to literary works, sophisticated can mean having been altered during copying or printing.
It makes sense, then, that the adjective comes from the verb to sophisticate, meaning to mix with a foreign substance, which dates to around 1400 when it appears in a version of The Book of John Mandeville:
It fallez oft tyme þat marchands sophisticatez peper.
(It happens oftentimes that merchants sophisticate pepper.)
The English verb is taken from the Medieval Latin sophisticare, which in turn comes from the Greek σοφιστής (sophistes), meaning one who accepts payment for instruction. These sophists, were different from the philosophers, who engaged in intellectual pursuits and education for higher purposes and not for money, hence the sophists were considered by some to be tainted or adulterated by base and material motivations. As a result, their teachings became associated, often unfairly, with specious and poor reasoning, or sophistry. The Latin sophisma means a false conclusion or fallacy. Presumably by the time the verb appeared in English, this sense of false reasoning had given way to deception and adulteration of substances, as in the merchant adulterating the pepper in the Mandeville quotation, although the trail of citations is not complete enough to be absolutely sure that this is the semantic path the word took.
The key to understanding the modern shift in meaning of sophisticated is the sense of altered from a natural state. Something that is cultured or refined is also altered from its natural state. Also, something that is mixed or made up of many substances is complex. The development of the current meanings is not surprising, but what is a bit of a shock is the rapidity with which they have taken over. The senses of adulterated and altered have all but completely vanished, and you have to turn academic literary criticism to find sophisticated used to mean altered during printing.
So, if you mix with the right circle of people, you too can become sophisticated.
“sophisma,” Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879.
“sophistic, adj.,” “sophisticate, n.,” “sophisticate, v.,” “sophisticated, adj.,” “sophistry, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton