7-minute read, and worth every second out of your time-starved day.
- inchoate has two meanings (and a third, legal one)
- its original meaning
- its newer meaning
- how it developed
- its legal meaning
- choate (probably best avoided outside U.S. legal circles)
An ‘inchoate group’ is how the British constitutional guru Vernon Bogdanor recently referred to the revolting French yellow vests (les gilets jaunes) in the BBC Sunday news and views programme Broadcasting House.
As this is one of the headwords in Fowler I substantially updated, I was already primed to ask myself what he meant. Did he mean ‘incipient, beginning, nascent’ or did he mean ‘disorganized’, ‘chaotic’, or something similar? Given that these highly visible protesters have been causing havoc for quite a while now, the second interpretation seemed to fit the gilets pretty well (laborious pun intended), even if it did not fit the original meaning of inchoate. (There is a third, legal meaning which I’ll touch on briefly at the end.)
And the original meaning is?
Inchoate derives from Latin inchoātus, the past participle of inchoāre ‘to begin’. (The h and o can also swap places – incohātus.) It originally meant ‘just begun, at an early or initial stage’. The OED first records it from 1534, making it part of that tsunami of Latin-derived words entering English in the Renaissance.
Appropriately, the first OED citation is from a translation of Cicero.
No paynter..shulde fynysshe that parte of Venus, whiche inchoat and begon Apelles left of imperfyte.
R. Whittington tr. Cicero Thre Bks. Tullyes Offycesiii. sig. P.7
(No painter…should finish that part of Venus, which inchoate and begun Apelles left off imperfect.)
(By fluke, I found the original is in Lewis & Short: … ut nemo pictor esset inventus, qui Coae Veneris eam partem, quam Appeles incohatam reliquisset, absolveret …)
The next OED citations are both from religious contexts.
It was a Church inchoate, beginning, not perfect.
1583 A. Nowell et al. True Rep. Disput. E. Campion sig. H4
His heavenly grace, which is glory inchoate, He imparteth to His Saints.
a1626 L. Andrewes Serm. (1856) I. 109
How it developed
And so it might have gone on forever, undemonstratively, even retiringly, learnèd. However, words have a pesky habit of changing meaning, and inchoate is no exception. There are two possible strands to its development. First, things that are only just starting up – for instance, a small start-up company – are likely to lack structure, and can therefore be free-flowing, disorganized, shambolic even. So, to flit from meaning ‘incipient, initial’ and hence ‘elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature’ to ‘disorganized, chaotic’ is a short semantic leap.
And second, that hop, skip and jump could well have been supercharged, as the OED sagely suggests (‘often regarded as unetymologically developed through confusion with chaotic adj. 1’), by subconscious association with chaotic, of which inchoate is a sort of failed anagram.
The earliest OED citation of the ‘new’ meaning is from 1922, from the U.S. playwright Eugene O’Neill:
The room is crowded with men, shouting, cursing, laughing, singing—a confused, inchoate uproar swelling into a sort of unity, a meaning.
Hairy Ape i. 1
As the relevant OED entry has not yet been updated, one wonders whether it could really have taken almost four centuries (1534–1922) for the meaning shift to happen. (The OED will tell us eventually, but don’t hold your breath.)
But meanwhile, the Merriam-Webster Concise Guide to English Usage antedates the OED with this, from 1916, expressing a point of view that could have been written by a twenty-first-century feminist:
… all the world of men seemed inchoate, purposeless, like the swarming, slimy, minute life in stagnant water.
Mary Webb, The Golden Arrow
Inchoate + what?
In Google Ngrams the ten most common combinations with inchoate do not include any nouns that particularly suggest confusion: inchoate form/state/mass/condition.
However, modern corpus data shows a clear link between inchoate and ‘emotion’ words: inchoate anger/rage/fury on the one hand, discontent/longing/feelings/desire on the other. An analysis of how the meaning of inchoate anger develops over gives some indication, I believe, of inchoate’s broader development.
In the earliest, 1918, Ngrams citation, the meaning seems to be ‘incipient’, but with the idea that the emotion is also turbulent, which is what the broader co-text leads one to suspect (‘Orme’ is the father of a woman with whom ‘Steve’ seems to be smitten.)
Orme turned to look at Steve, who grew conscious, in the oddest way, of a stirring of revolt, of inchoate anger.
Everybody’s Magazine, vol. 38
But even here one cannot be sure, short of a Ouija-board ™ session with the unnamed author. (How one would summon his/her spirit without a name, I leave the reader to ponder; and no, Grammarly, it should not be corrected to ‘an Ouija…’; even though it begins with a ‘vowel’ letter, it is pronounced as a ‘consonant’ w.)
Next in time comes the 1922 O’Neill quote mentioned earlier, where inchoate follows confused and seems to reinforce if not repeat the latter’s meaning.
And then we have to wait almost another two decades to get to Thomas Wolfe’s 1943 Of Time and the River:
And again Eugene was filled with the old, choking, baffled, and inchoate anger, the sense of irretrievable and certain defeat: …
If it’s ‘choking’ and ‘baffled’ it seems a sure bet that that anger will be incoherent if not chaotic. Which also seems to apply to this next trouvaille (1958) from Ngrams:
And there were traitors just everywhere trying to take America away from the Americans, right under their noses, just like Senator McCarthy said. All these things were clear now, and the dim inchoate anger that had smoldered so …
Mary Mannes, More in Anger
But then again, this seems to me a classic case of ‘it could be meaning a or it could be meaning b, who knows?’ In other words, it has elements of both, as do so many examples, including the Thomas Wolfe one.
The next (in time) OED citation, though, is clearly the ‘disorganized’ meaning:
Out of the inchoate welter of recent published poetry, in magazines and books, emerges an organized body of 344 poems by 102 poets who have become known since 1945.
1962 Times Lit. Suppl. 16 Mar. 186/1
And while many later examples in Ngrams seem to be of the second meaning, e.g:
Amlie was raised on a farm in east central North Dakota where the meaness [sic] of his family’s life inculcated a fierce but inchoate anger …
as are many more up-to-date ones, e.g:
… disgruntlement with politics may not express itself as a question of class, but it is the job of politicians to articulate people’s strong if inchoate feelings, to crystallise ideas and describe society as it is …
the original sense of ‘only just begun, still to be formulated’ is still in use:
The first edition … contained two sections that were in finished form, but much of the rest was tangled and inchoate.
R. Ellmann, 1986
The second [sc. a modern piece of music] draws out an inchoate thought into an obsessive hour of cloudy atmospherics.
New York Magazine, 2011
Does anybody object?
Well, meaning shifts or blurring do often irritate people, contradicting the observation that word meanings are not ‘autonomous and fossilized, like flies caught in amber’. Some usage commentators, including Gowers in his 1965 Fowler, disliked it, but it has been accepted by the OED since 1993, and is accepted by Merriam-Webster, although M-W does rather adroitly hedge its bets with that weasel ‘especially’.
Don’t let spelling trip you up
Under the influence of incoherent there could be a danger of misspelling the word incohate: the heated exchanges of those who have made the year of culture in 2008 an incohate, ill-thought vista—weblog, 2006. (10,000ish Google hits). Despite Latin, this spelling is regarded as wrong.
The legal meaning
The phrase inchoate offence covers an illegal act still to be committed, for example encouraging or assisting a crime, or conspiracy to commit a crime:
In England and Wales, it is an inchoate crime to agree with others to commit a crime.
Jrnl of Intern. Crim. Justice, 2014
choate: the ‘misbegotten’ back-formation
The prefix in– of inchoate is not, etymologically speaking, a negative implying the existence of an antonym choate. But, clearly, someone long ago said ‘A fig for etymology!’; there is a legal term choate, meaning ‘complete’ or ‘valid’, which has been in use in legal circles in the U.S. for many decades and dates back to at least 1829.
According to Garner’s authoritative Dictionary of Legal Usage, it has been hotly disputed by Supreme Court Judge Scalia and is practically unknown in British English.
My trawls in the Oxford corpus and GloWbE (Corpus of Global Web-Based English) seem to confirm that: there are only two examples of choate being used to mean ‘coherent’ in British sources: A walk around the camp reveals the difficulties they must have had in presenting a united, choate vision.
Daily Tel., 2012
My attitude isn’t disrespectful of Martin’s readers — as if they were a choate entity to be criticised en masse.
May, 2011, from the blog The Speculative Scotsman.
Personally, I would recommend not using it for three reasons: first, anyone used to the legal meaning might interpret it that way; second, everybody else could well have not a scooby what you are trying to convey; and third, they might mentally pronounce the ch as in chicken, which would fox them still further.
The following can be considered malapropisms for ‘incoherent with, incandescent with’: Syria and Iraq have proved almost inchoate with rage at the fearful imagery of their biggest single source of water being stemmed for a solid month— Observer, 1990; Most of the time I have been nearly inchoate with rage at the blind stupidity of what I am seeing. Dr A. Curran, 2011.
1 Incidentally, and confusingly, the word can be pronounced in many possible ways, at least according to the OED: With stress on the second syllable, and giving full value to the –ate part: in-KOH-ate
or pronouncing it as a schwa: in-KOH-ut
and with stress on the first syllable, with the same variation: IN-koh-ate, IN-koh-ut.)