Frederick Douglass’s Agitation

August 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I hate to see a good word fade and get folded into another word that doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

A Twitter link yesterday took me to a sociology blog whose post consisted entirely of a quotation from Frederick Douglass. It contained this sentence:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Depreciate agitation? Surely Douglass must have said “deprecate.” That little “i,” a slender stroke and dot barely noticeable, makes a difference. Or at least it used to. In Douglass’s time, to deprecate meant to disapprove strongly, and depreciate meant to reduce in value. We depreciate assets. We deprecate sin. 

“Deprecate” as a percentage of both words took a dive starting around 1970, falling from 40% to 20%. 

Today, the distinction between the two is fading to the point that many readers and writers either do not know the difference or are simply unaware of the word deprecate.  Authors rewrite Douglass’s words; their books then become sources for other books and blogs.  The sound of deprecate grows fainter and fainter. If you search Google for the Douglass quote, the first screen gives you a chance of finding the right word.

(Depreciate is circled in red, deprecate in blue. Click on the graphic for a larger view. )

Still, when I searched for both kinds of agitation, Goggle returned more than three times as many “depreciates” as “deprecates.” 

Google too seems to think that the revised version of the Douglass quote is the correct one. When I asked for “deprecate,” Google suggested that maybe I (and Douglass) had made a spelling error. 


Language evolves. But it’s one thing for that evolution to make for changes as we move forward in history; it’s quite another for us to make those changes retroactive.  I fear that in the next edition of Frederick Douglass’s writings, some alert copy editor will see “deprecate agitation,” assume that it’s a typo, and insert the “i.”  And Douglass will turn over in his grave knowing that his powerful language has been depreciated.

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