It's the start of 2016 as I write this and all the grammar and taxonomy geeks are posting their top "10 most misused words" posts. There are some great ones, but I have yet to see one of my favorites: agnostic vs. ecumenical.
Ecumenical is a not-often used word, but agnostic must have come into vogue at least 10 years ago if not more. I remember using it often during my time in the software business when we talked about how our software was "platform agnostic." Theoretically meaning that it would run on any platform. I did say theoretically.
About a year ago, while I was working with one of my clients,* I said something about the piece needing to be "technologically agnostic." He said, "You mean ecumenical." I said, "Huh?" Actually, I conceded his point rather quickly, not because I thought he was right, but because my clients pay my bills.
After that meeting, though, I quickly looked up the term to see if he was, indeed, correct. He was. Well, sort of.
According to Merriam Webster's online dictionary, an agnostic is:
1: a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god
2: a person who is unwilling to commit to an opinion about something <political agnostics>
My client's contention was that agnostic is only a religious term, and the first definition given by Merriam Webster is clearly a religious one. The second is not, but since my day job involves committing my client's opinions to paper (or pixels, anyway) it's not a very suitable definition.
Now, before I looked it up, I would have guessed that ecumenical was only a religious word. It just sounds like one, doesn't it? But Webster gives the following definitions:
1: worldwide or general in extent, influence, or application
2a : of, relating to, or representing the whole of a body of churches b : promoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation
The first definition, usually the most common one, is not religious. And, in the context of the white papers I write, it is the more appropriate.
It's also interesting to note that neither term has a distinctly religious origin. Both come from the Greek:
Agnostic - agnōstos unknown, unknowable
Ecumenical - Late Latin oecumenicus, from Late Greek oikoumenikos, from Greek oikoumenē the inhabited world, from feminine of oikoumenos,present passive participle ofoikein to inhabit, from oikoshouse
At the end of the day, I might have reminded my client that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is the meaning of a word. And, meaning can change as quickly as the height of one's hemlines. Of course, I didn't tell my client that. I just vowed to stop using the word agnostic while in conversation with him. Sometimes, having a full slate of projects is more satisfying than being right.
*During the day, I write white papers and blog posts for high-tech businesses.