Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Word of the Day: Forensics

Being an amateur wordsmith, I have always been intrigued by how the meanings of words change over time. Most of us are familiar with the change of meaning of the adjective "gay." Some chauvinists still insist on clinging to its former meaning, as exemplified in the Christmas Carol, "Deck the Halls."

Surprized to see the reference to chauvinism? Technically, chauvinism is any belief in a lost cause, after a soldier named Chauvin, who served under Napoleon. In the latter days of the twentieth century, the word became so widely used in tandem with "male" that that one kind of chauvinism eventually came to be assumed without its modifier being present. Most people would be confused or surprized by its use in any other context.

Such a similar path has been taken by forensics. This Washington Post article talks about the confusion involving forensics clubs in high schools.

Forensics has long meant the art of speechmaking and oral presentation. Rusty McCrady, the debate and forensics coach at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, said forensics clubs give students the opportunity to speak effectively....

Today, Forensics Clubs, which teach students how to be sleuths, are popping up in several schools. They are inspired by the hit television show "CSI," which shows detectives using DNA and corpse analyses, as well as other techniques, to solve crimes.

I have to admit I was totally ignorant of the former meaning, and had never heard of forensics competitions here in Maine. Of course, our school lacked even the more popular debate team. The only academically-based competition clubs we had were Math Team and the foreign language clubs.

So how did the word get from speech-making to corpse-poking? As with chauvinism, a word with which it was formerly paired dropped away. But this time, the noun vanished, leaving the adjective to become a noun in its own right, but having assumed the meaning of the entire phrase: forensic science.

Forensic science or forensic medicine (now forensics) is science or medicine used to establish fact in court cases. Where speeches are made about the facts to persuade the court.

I'm still trying to figure out how either of these definitions of forensics could stem from the first meaning, which I learned in third grade:





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