The Grammarphobia Blog

The theory of devolution

Q: I am frequently hearing speakers, especially on NPR, using the verb “devolve” to refer to a negative development or change, e.g., “The political debate devolved into a brawl.” Has the meaning of the word evolved? Or have NPR announcers never learned about the War of Devolution?

A: “Devolve,” a word that dates back to 1420 (almost 250 years before the War of Devolution between France and Spain), literally means to roll or revolve downward. It was originally used in the physical sense (for example, rivers devolving to the sea), according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but those literal uses are all now obscure or archaic.

By the mid-1500s “devolve” was used to refer to the handing down or passing down of something to a successor or heir. (The thing devolved might be property, duties, responsibilities, rights, or obligations.) And that’s roughly how we use it today.

A briefly used negative sense, “to fall or sink gradually, to degenerate,” is considered obscure by the OED, which has no citations for it since the early 1800s. This negative usage isn’t even listed in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). However (and I think oddly), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), does include it as the last among its definitions.

Perhaps the NPR folks you mention are reviving an old obscurity? It’s more likely, though, that the verb they mean is “degenerate.”

As for that 17th century war, it was fought over the devolution of Spanish-ruled Belgium and Luxembourg (in other words, who would get them) when the Spanish king’s daughter married the king of France. No Belgian waffling in those days!

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