'Agnostic' – do we even care?

"What's with agnostic?" a reader writes. "Could you illuminate this subject (if not eradicate it, before it takes over like a fungus)?"

I'm happy to. Who wants to be taken over by a fungus?

Agnostic was coined by T.H. Huxley in 1870 to describe "one who professes that the existence of a First Cause and the essential nature of things are not and cannot be known." For his neologism he drew on a Greek word meaning "unknown." So agnostic has been traditionally used to refer to the knowledge – or not – of God.

Now it's being applied to those who don't know, and hence don't have an opinion on, other things. It's a highbrow way of saying, "I don't have a dog in that fight."

Does this new meaning serve a need – or will it ruin the word for its original purpose?

Dealing with a word in transition is like being on one of those "articulated" subway cars, the ones with a joint in the middle, on the MBTA system here in Boston. Your footing may be a little unsteady until the car has turned the corner.

The new "agnostic" may be most useful in situations such as this: "I don't know, and I don't need to know, what goes on with X before I see it. But here's what I need X to do or be when I do see it."

Thus, on a Friday afternoon, a boss may say frankly to a troublesome employee: "You've been giving off such bad vibes around here that the geraniums in the break room are dying. You really need to get yourself straightened out over the weekend. I'm agnostic on how you do it, but you've got to have a better attitude when you come in Monday morning."

The Greek derivation may give "agnostic" a certain dignity and may signal a willingness to suspend judgment. But unless the "don't know" clearly has "don't need to know and maybe can't know" folded into it, it's hard to make the case for this use of "agnostic." (Of course, if someone really just doesn't know, there's the Latin-derived adjective "ignorant." But who wants to claim that label?)

The "new agnosticism" shows up in the technical realm all the time, as in the recent announcement of a "location appliance" that claims to be "infrastructure-agnostic." It's a technology that helps business keep track of their assets – their mobile employees' cellphones, laptops, and other devices. The "appliance" is "agnostic" in the sense that it doesn't know and doesn't need to know what kind of network infrastructure the user has – but can play with anyone.

It sounds like jargon, because it is jargon. And it's a comedown for a word used in discussions of God to be applied to mere gizmos.

Beyond that, "agnostic" often seems to have a subtext of "I don't care," which has about it more than a whiff of indifference, of disengagement.

What the geeks, though, are generally describing when they say "agnostic" is neutrality.

Neutrality doesn't make anyone's heart beat faster. After all, in "Casablanca," the man for whom Ingrid Bergman turns down Humphrey Bogart is a wartime resistance leader, not a Swiss banker.

But at least "neutral" lacks the tuned-out "whatever" air that clings to this newer use of "agnostic." The technical world has another useful adjective to cover this "open to all" attitude: universal.

"Universal power supply," for instance, is the term for the little box that massages the current coming out of the wall in a strange hotel room and feeds it into your laptop computer without frying it.

But even if you didn't know that, doesn't "universal power supply" sound like something you'd really like to have – much more than an infrastructure-agnostic location appliance?

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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