The other night, The Professor and I watched Pressure Cooker, an Emmy-nominated documentary about high school students in inner-city Philadelphia who go through a demanding culinary arts program with an eye to winning scholarships for culinary school. The film was entertaining, suspenseful, and moving. I highly recommend it!²
The students are driven on by a ferocious and loving teacher, Wilma Stephenson, who puts every ounce of her being into moving these students toward success. Throughout the film, she urges them to better themselves, to pull their pants up (literally), to dream beyond their inner-city existence, and to start showing some class. Among other things, she makes them try foods that they’ve never been exposed to before, telling them that they need to move beyond a taste for the fast food they’ve grown up with and to expand their worlds. She wants them to develop a more sophisticated palate.
So what is sophistication? I’ve heard a few times that Seattle is not a sophisticated city. This is usually voiced by folks who are from or who have spent time on the U.S. East Coast. As far as I can tell by this, sophistication means having higher fashion standards than the fleece-wearing, Birkenstock-shod, off-leash dog park-loving Pacific Northwest is prone to exhibit. It also helps, apparently, if hollering is the normal volume level of communication, if allowing someone to merge in front of you on the freeway is seen as a sign of personal weakness, and if you are always crammed into the train or bus instead of actually having a seat on most rides. But what do I know? I grew up in a Midwestern town of 7000 people (since ballooned to 9000) where the local radio station call letters are WCOW. No, I am not kidding.
Let’s look at the origins here to see if we can dig up any further information about sophistication. Our journey starts with the Greek word sophistes, meaning a sage, derived from sophizesthai, “to become wise or learned.” Latin borrowed the word as sophista, then passed it on to English in the 16th century as “sophist.” But things started to go downhill. “Sophist” meant both “teacher” or “philosopher,” and later, “a person…who, while professing to teach skill in reasoning, concerned himself with ingenuity and specious effectiveness rather than soundness of argument.”³
The double meaning—showing both respect and contempt—follows the word and its relatives to this day. “Sophomore” means a student in the second year of her studies. “Sophomoric” can be an adjective that simply refers to sophomores, but most often is used to mean “intellectually pretentious, overconfident, conceited, etc., but immature.” “Sophistry” is wholly in the negative camp, meaning “a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning,” and a sophism is an instance of this method. “Sophisticated” has a number of meanings, ranging from “reflecting educated taste” to “deceptive; misleading.” “Sophistication” has the same dual character.
So is sophistication a desirable quality, worthy of admiration? Or is it a specious merit? Our word history tells us it can be either, depending on the way a person manifests it. Things have never been simple with the sophisticates. For Mrs. Stephenson, though, it means a way out of the ghetto. She and her students’ search for sophistication is an example of the use of this word in the manner deserving highest respect.
¹ Leonardo da Vinci
² available from Netflix both on disc and streaming, and as a rental from iTunes
³ This and other definitions quoted are from Dictionary.com Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary