TORY MPs who took part in last week's ritual were described by several journalists as the most sophisticated electorate in the world - a notion which, as Alan Watkins pointed out last Sunday, was hard to take seriously, given your average backbencher. But I think the mediamen must have got muddled, and were confusing the machinery with the people who operated it. A sophisticated machine, or system, is an admirable thing, a tribute to human ingenuity. Apply it to people and the word becomes a little ridiculous. Surely it is used only by the pretentious, or by those who are its opposite, the naive?
Its past record is somewhat against it. A 17th-century sophist was a wise or clever man; but the English suspicion of intellectuals, or swots, later to be encouraged by our great public schools, must have been at work here, because he was also someone who was too clever by half. To sophisticate meant to corrupt. Anyone talking about a sophisticated electorate in George III's day would have been asked to withdraw the insult. But they probably wouldn't have used the word like that anyway, because it was applied only to things, not people. Some restaurateurs advertise the sophistication of their establishments, hoping to evoke candlelit alcoves and hovering wine waiters. This would once have been a confession that they tampered with the food.
How sophisticated began to lose its bad connotations, moving from the idea of duplicity to the more neutral one of complexity, is something of a puzzle. But it has never been much use as a hurrah-word. Its negative, unsophisticated, is as often a word of approval. Meanwhile the worst possible combination is a sophisticated machine (an electoral system say) in the hands of unsophisticated people. That usually means disaster.
Nicholas BagnallReuse content