Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Implications of Imbrication

I keep running into the word "imbricate." Apparently it has its origin in botany; definitions are available here. It means "overlap." But in a certain academic style it has a vogue, especially in the passive voice. I give below some examples, gleaned via Google.
The history of the Dada movement is imbricated in the lightning-fast intellectual break-through set off, simultaneously and independently, in various parts of the world by several groups of young artists, writers and philosophers.

Rather than reifying the State, we would like to conceptualize it as a set of discourses and practices - as a site of cultural and social production that is imbricated in diffuse power relations and forms of governmentality.

The dissertation also traces the growing power of literature as generated by the bourgeois project of refining and controlling a certain kind of desirable femininity. This was deeply imbricated in the ongoing process of delineating social class.

These journalists reveal how issues in women’s health are deeply imbricated in the lives of Indian women.
Where, I wonder, does "imbricate in" come from? Judging from these and other examples, "to imbricate in" means...uh, what, exactly? Something different from overlap. It seems to have the meaning of "be involved with in a vague way that leaves causes and effects unclear." (The phrase "deeply imbricated" is very popular.) Sometimes it just means "connected with," as in the last example above.

In fact, I have a theory that imbricate used in this vague, passive-voice way is influenced by the sound-alike implicate. Substitute that in the above sentences and see if it doesn't become a bit clearer.

Should we get rid of imbricate, used in this way? I doubt if we'll have to; it doesn't serve any useful purpose, and is rarely found outside of academic writing of a certain mind-numbing dullness. Surely we can expect it to die of its own silly superfluity? On the other hand, I did see it in the New York Times this morning...

Enough of modern usage. In the near future, I promise I will return to ancient philology, where I belong.


elf said...

Is there a difference between the "imbricated" and "enmeshed"? (I'm referring to the use of these terms in academic writing, not their etymology.)

EMC said...

Good question. I don't know. "Enmeshed" sounds better and is clearer than "imbricated," so if they mean the same thing, I prefer "enmeshed."

Anonymous said...

It has more to do with separate things coming together seamlessly, whether by design or accident, to make a whole. Similar to interwoven or embedded, but more like how a flowers peddles close, shingles come together, zippers get zipped, or bricks are laid (hence the word).

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the discussion and the comments. They address an instance of the word that appears in a book I'm editing. When I first saw it in a sentence about religion, I said, "Huh?" Now I know how to deal with it.