Deprecate? Depreciate? Let’s call the whole thing off.

I have assumed deprecate meant “to belittle.” As it turns out, I am far from the first person to have been baffled by this word.

Staff

A warning popped up on my computer recently, a message that I needed to uninstall the Flash Player plug-in because Adobe had deprecated it. I imagined a bunch of programmers yelling at a computer, “You’re no good, Flash!” “HTML5 runs rings around you!” I assumed deprecate meant “to belittle,” so Adobe’s usage seemed wrong. As it turns out, I am far from the first person to have been baffled by this word.

Today, deprecate most often appears in its reflexive adjectival form, self-deprecating: “tending or serving to disparage or undervalue oneself,” according to Merriam-Webster. We might make a self-deprecating comment in response to praise.

This usage is relatively new, however. Before 1950 or so, the more common term was self-depreciating. This was also the proper term, according to language mavens. In “Garner’s Modern English Usage,” linguist Bryan Garner draws a firm distinction between deprecate (“to disapprove earnestly”) and depreciate (“to belittle, disparage”). If “her mother deprecated her choice of husband,” Mom thoroughly disapproved of the guy; if “she depreciated him at every opportunity,” she talked smack about him at every turn. Thus, according to Mr. Garner, self-deprecating “is, literally speaking, a virtual impossibility.” Even he admits, though, that it is here to stay, since it’s far more common than self-depreciating.

Depreciate is changing too, and today is rarely encountered outside of financial contexts. It means “to fall in value” – “Sell your GameStop stock before it depreciates!” – or to claim tax deductions “for the wear and tear, deterioration, or obsolescence” of cars, real estate, and so on, according to the IRS.

Adobe’s deprecation of Flash Player is actually closer to the term’s original definition, then, implying a wholehearted disavowal. Just as depreciate has found a niche in finance, deprecate has become a term of art in the software world. When programmers update their code, or companies release new applications, they often deprecate outdated features or products rather than deleting them immediately, which serves as notice that they will stop making updates. 

Are some of these uses more correct than others? It seems they are all fine. If you want to say self-depreciating, people might think you’re talking about your stocks, but it’s not incorrect. Self-deprecating was historically incorrect, but is now the default. 

If you would like to preserve the original distinction and want a mnemonic, etymology may help. Deprecate comes from the Latin de- + precari (“to pray away”). When you deprecate something, you’d like it gone, especially if it’s a bug-prone software plug-in. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.