You say you want a devolution

June 26, 2008

With the Supreme Court’s death penalty decision, we’re going to hear more about this country’s “evolving standard of decency,” so let’s have a little vocabulary lesson.

Devolve is not really the antonym of evolve, or at least it wasn’t until recently. Devolve means a transer or delegation (of a duty or responsibility, for example) to another. We can say that, because of the county’s dissolution of the cumulative bridge fund, maintenance of Fort Wayne’s bridges has devolved on the city.

But I notice the misuse has been committed so often that the anti-evolution definition has started creeping into a few online dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s, which means it’s well on its way to being a correct usage. But there are still other words that get the job done as intended: decline, decay, degrade. I like regress. (Ah, memories; regress, we’ve had a few).

And evolve just means to develop gradually. It’s neutral as to the type of development — it doesn’t mean gradual improvement or getting better. But the way the word has been used lately, many people probably think to evolve means to become more civilized or something.

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