Reboot your mindset.

Dear Word Detective:  The current use of the word “paradigm” puzzles me.  My dictionary states the grammatical definition which is easily understood, and a second definition:  “an example; pattern.”  My dictionary is fairly old.  The newscasters and politicians always seem to use the phrase “new paradigm.”  Do they mean a “new pattern” and are just using a fancier word?  Or is there another meaning, by usage, that I am not aware of?  Fortunately, its use seems to be diminishing.  It is like the word “vet” which is popular these days and “to parse” and that immortal “at this point in time” which seems to be locked into the language, much to my annoyance. — MMU.

I feel your pain.  Actually, I’m somewhat ambivalent (which is better than being firmly ambivalent, I suppose) about the buzzwords and catchphrases that infest what passes for public discourse these days.  On the one hand, it’s fascinating to watch these creations pop up suddenly and stride confidently into the spotlight, all new and trendy, with the glow of the in-crowd and the magical power to make boring people sound, if only momentarily, smarter than they are.  Where would dinner parties be without them?  On the other, there’s nothing more tiresome and pathetic than a buzzword or phrase that has stayed too long at the ball.  At the end of the day, “at the end of the day” just sounds moldy and lame.

One also has to wonder whether even ten percent of the people who use these words have a clue as to their original meanings.  Do the newscasters who yammer on about “vetting” political candidates know that they are likening the process to having a cow examined by a veterinarian?  Do the pundits who “parse” (from the Latin “pars orationis,” parts of speech) politicians’ speeches actually diagram the sentences?

OK, geezer mode off.  When “paradigm” (pronounced PARA-dime) first appeared in English in the late 15th century, it was used in its original Greek sense of “pattern, model or example” (from “paradeiknynai,” literally “to show side-by-side”).  By the mid-17th century, “paradigm” had become a grammatical term meaning “a set of examples illustrating forms in an inflected language,” such as the “amo, amas, amat” (“I love, you love, he/she/it loves”) conjugation table familiar to first-year Latin students.

In 1962, however, historian Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, invoked “paradigm” to mean “world view,” and highlighted the role of a “paradigm shift” in transforming consciousness (as when the accepted “paradigm” of an Earth-centered universe gave way to a more accurate view of the cosmos).  “Paradigm” was inevitably pressed into service by politicians for less exalted uses, and during George H.W. Bush’s presidential administration there was much talk of a “new economic paradigm” (leading Dick Darman, Bush’s skeptical budget director, to quip “Brother, can you paradigm?”).

In today’s usage, “paradigm” can mean anything from “underlying philosophical principles forming a basis for making social policy decisions” to “marketing plan for the new breakfast sandwich.”  If “paradigm” is fading, as I agree it seems to be, it’s at the end of a long day indeed, and not a moment too soon.

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