My So-Called Definition

By Michele Callaghan, Manuscript Editor

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate student in Buffalo, New York, I heard a TV newscast that I have never forgotten. An important figure in the history of philosophy had died, and Eyewitness News was letting us know about it. “Jean-Paul Sartre, so-called founder of existentialism, dead today, in his apartment in Paris,” was delivered in the staccato cadence and sensationalized tone those broadcasts always had. I have occasion to relive that moment when serious events are trivialized on television and when people use the term “so-called” in what I feel is the wrong way.

So does the term mean “known as” or “called,” as it is used in news broadcasts and other media? Or does it imply irony or doubt, as The Chicago Manual of Style states? The jury is out. Dictionaries—both Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary­­—give the common use as the first, or preferred, one. The OED shows the term with a hyphen as implying irony and without a hyphen as merely naming something. In American English, we don’t use a hyphen for either meaning.

I guess ask yourself these questions: Would you hire a so-called contractor to fix your house? Would you go to a so-called doctor if you were sick and a so-called hospital in an emergency?  Or would you want the meaning of your life determined by a so-called philosopher? I wouldn’t. So for now, I will keep reserving so-called for its presumed meaning: something not what it purports to be. And that was certainly not true of Jean-Paul Sartre. I have no doubt that he created many an existential crisis and that there was nothing so-called about him.

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