The Grammarphobia Blog

Social studies

Q: Is “societal” a word? I much prefer “social.”

A: Yes, “societal” is a legitimate adjective. It’s been in use since 1843, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the first recorded use in print, from Hints and Reflections for Rail Travellers and Others, by an author calling himself (no doubt pseudonymously) Minor Hugo:

“Our monetary system, like that of trade, or any other societal occupation, is unfair from first to last.” (More about this book later.)

The OED defines “societal” as meaning “of or relating to society.” The word combines the noun “society” and the adjectival suffix “al.”

But why did Minor Hugo bother to coin the word “societal”? How was it an improvement on “social”?

After all, the adjective “social” had had the same meaning (“of or relating to society”) since 1579, the OED says.

We’re guessing that “societal” appealed to that 19th-century writer because “social” had so many other meanings besides.

“Social” entered English in the late 1300s from Middle French, where social meant “allied militarily,” according to the OED.

The English adjective started out as “designating a war fought between allies,” the OED says. (In this respect it resembled the word “civil” as used in the phrase “civil war.”)

But early on, “social” had friendlier overtones. This was only natural, since it came from the Latin noun socius, meaning an ally, companion, comrade, etc.

(In the 1400s, English acquired an identical noun, “socius,” with the same meaning: companion, associate, or colleague. It’s still used today, and the plural is “socii.”)

By the 1400s, according to the OED, “social” meant “devoted to home life; domestic.”

And from the 1500s onward, its senses blossomed in many directions.

It could mean “of or relating to society,” or specifically “high society.”

But it also had the sense of “sociable”—that is, agreeable, companionable, living or associating with others, characterized by friendly interaction.

It also took on more neutral meanings having to do with groups or communities, whether of humans or animals or even plants found together.

Perhaps those who first used “societal” felt they needed a more purely human, neutral term. 

Which brings us back to Minor Hugo’s book, Hints and Reflections for Rail Travellers and Others. In the mid-19th century, when it was published, reviewers were a vicious lot.

Here’s how an anonymous reviewer in a London journal, The Monthly Review of December 1843, summed up poor Mr. Hugo’s effort:

“Trash! vile, irredeemable trash! nonsense so staringly idiotic, so inconceivably absurd, that the reader, wherever he may open the book, will be prompted to exclaim, (‘more in sorrow than in anger’) Alas! has this poor unfortunate no friends who can feel for his miserable situation, and who possess sufficient means to place him in some comparative retirement, where, under a competent degree of discipline and sanatory treatment, his mind might, perhaps, be so far relieved from its present disordered condition, as to afford him a sufficing glimpse of the ‘chaotic obscure’—the dark, waste, and inculturable region presented by his narrow and infirm intellect—and thereby dissuade him from any future attempt to advertise the public of his melancholy state of imbecility.”

That’s just the beginning. It goes on for page after page. Now there’s a tough reviewer! We might even call him antisocial.

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