From harmony to imaginary: how the meaning of 'conspiracy' has changed

Steven Poole
·1 min read
<span>Photograph: Andy Buchanan/PA</span>
Photograph: Andy Buchanan/PA

The former first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, has alleged that there is a “malicious and concerted effort” to denigrate him, causing others to accuse him of throwing around “conspiracy theories”. But what is a conspiracy, exactly?

Our English word comes from the Latin conspirare, which literally means “to breathe together”, and apart from the sense of people whispering among themselves to plot crimes it could also describe musicians playing horns together or people acting in other kinds of positive harmony. This sense was once available in English, too – as when Philip Sidney describes how a man might feel about his beloved, that “the conspiracie of her severall graces held best together to make one perfect figure of beautie” – as well as in the alternative “conspiration”, ie aspiring with others.

In modern times the phrase “conspiracy theory” is, oddly, applied only to purely factitious or imaginary conspiracies, ones about alien lizards or paedophile rings run out of pizza joints, for which we might want to blame Karl Popper’s description of “the conspiracy theory of society” in 1952. In the meantime, breathing along with others right now would put you at risk of Covid-19, so any sort of conspiracy is firmly inadvisable.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.