The Grammarphobia Blog

Organic recitals

Q: Is the use of the word “organic” incorrect here? “I don’t want to go speed dating. I want to meet someone in a more organic way.”

A: The word “organic” isn’t being used incorrectly – just metaphorically. In fact, “organic” has undergone many changes – both literal and metaphorical – over the centuries.

The ultimate source is the Greek organon, which means an implement, a musical instrument, or a part of the body. Organon, in turn, is related to the word ergon, or work. So “organic” and “ergonomic” are relatives!

When the noun “organ” was first used in Old English in the 8th century, it was a musical term for a type of stringed or wind instrument. “Organ,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, didn’t mean a functional part of the body until the 1400s.

But back to the adjective, “organic.” When it first appeared in English in the 1300s, it was an anatomical term referring to the jugular vein. The earliest OED citation is from an English translation of a Latin medical text by Lanfranc of Milan, a famous surgeon of his day.

Soon after it appeared, “organic” was being used in biological and medical writings to mean having to do with the organs of the body.

Later it was applied to living organisms; to things derived from living matter; to things that were instrumental; to things that had developed continuously or naturally; to a coordinated whole (that is, something that was “organized”); and to things having the characteristics of a living organism.

In the early 1940s, the term was first used in reference to farming methods that avoided chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and so on. Thus began the greening of the word “organic.”

As with any word that becomes widely popular, “organic” has taken on metaphorical uses. During the 1970s, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, “organic” was used on college campuses to mean “fashionable.” Cassell’s says the meaning developed in “acknowledgment of ‘green’ politics.”

I’ve heard many people use “organic” as a synonym for “natural,” which isn’t technically correct (particularly in the food and farming industries) but it’s a reasonable metaphorical usage.

In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has this as one of its definitions of “organic”: “simple, healthful, and close to nature.”

Back to your question. I can understand that speed-dating might be considered artificial and contrived, whereas meeting a person spontaneously, as part of the ordinary course of events, might be seen as simple and natural – hence “organic.”

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