Q: Eek! Apropos of current usage, what do you make of the verb “deconstruct,” now popularly used for analyzing something to discover its inner truth. As far as I know, it really refers to a particular brand of literary criticism that exposes how elusive meaning can be in any text. How odd that it should be used to suggest finding out what the actual meaning is.
A: Great observation! You’re quite right, and this had never occurred to me. I often hear people use “deconstruct” these days as a verb meaning to make sense of something. In fact, “deconstruct” might better be described as a verb meaning to show how impossible it is to make sense of something, though I imagine literary scholars would object to such a glib definition.
Despite its wide usage, I don’t find this new meaning in either The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) or Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). The traditional definition is still the first one listed in the “deconstruct” entry in Merriam-Webster’s, but it’s second in American Heritage. The primary definition in American Heritage is to break down something into components.
The earliest published reference for “deconstruct” in the Oxford English Dictionary is in a 1973 translation from Jacques Derrida, the constructor of deconstruction: “One cannot attempt to deconstruct this transcendence.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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