The Grammarphobia Blog

Business agnostic?

Q: In a recent conference call, three people described themselves as “business agnostic.” By this they meant they had skills useful in many business sectors, not just one. Is this use of “agnostic” correct? If so, will you please explain the rationale?

A: We can’t find this sense of “agnostic” in the Oxford English Dictionary or the half-dozen standard dictionaries we regularly check.

But English has taken a lot of liberties with “agnostic” since it first showed up in the mid-1800s. The usage you’ve noticed seems to be yet another extension of the many extended uses of the word.

The OED says “agnostic” first showed up as a noun for “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from the May 29, 1869, issue of the Spectator:

All these considerations, and the great controversies which suggest them, are in the highest degree cultivating, and will be admitted to be so even by those Agnostics who think them profitless of any practical result.”

The OED says the term “agnostic” was “apparently coined” by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley.

The dictionary probably qualifies the attribution because the chronology is a bit fuzzy.

In “Agnosticism,” an 1889 essay, Huxley says he invented the term at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in London in 1869.

However, the society didn’t hold its first formal meeting until June 2, 1869, four days after the word “Agnostics” appeared in the Spectator.

It’s possible, though, that Huxley may have used the term at an organizational meeting of the Metaphysical Society that he attended on April 21.

In his essay, Huxley says he saw the word “agnostic” as “suggestively antithetic to the ‘gnostic’ of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.”

The Gnostics (from gnosis, Greek for knowledge) were early Christians who used the term for people with spiritual knowledge.

Soon after “agnostic” appeared in print, the OED says, people were using the noun loosely to refer to “a person who is not persuaded by or committed to a particular point of view; a sceptic. Also: person of indeterminate ideology or conviction; an equivocator.”

The first Oxford citation for this new sense is from the Dec. 15, 1885, issue of the Western Druggist: Judge Chipman is clearly an agnostic on the subject of pills.”

When the adjective showed up in the 1870s, the dictionary says, it referred to “the belief that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (as far as can be judged) unknowable.”

The first OED citation for the adjective is from the Oct. 1, 1870, issue of the Spectator: “Are not his favourite ‘agnostic’ creeds … absolutely hostile to that enthusiasm of love to God and faith in God which are the simplest and most universal elements of a ‘religious spirit’ ”?

But like the noun, the adjective soon took on extended uses: “not committed to or persuaded by a particular point of view; sceptical. Also: politically or ideologically unaligned; non-partisan, equivocal.”

The first Oxford citation for this sense is from the June 23, 1884, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Standard: “Many worthy young persons who have been brought up on the sincere milk of agnostic politics.”

More recently, the OED says, the adjective has taken on a new sense in computing: developing, working with, or compatible with more than one type of computer system or operating system.

Is it legitimate to describe a versatile business person as “business agnostic”? It’s a bit of a stretch, but we think so.

If it’s OK to use “agnostic” to describe an open-minded politician, it’s not all that much of a leap to use it for an adaptable business type.

If you’d like to read more, we ran a post back in 2006 about the differences between an atheist and an agnostic.

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