“Secular” moves from the church to the state

We’re living in a “secular” time.

Well, duh. Of course it’s “secular”; America has no state religion, as in Israel or Iran. And doesn’t Webster’s New College World Dictionary define “secular” as “of or relating to worldly things as distinguished from things relating to church and religion; not sacred or religious; temporal; worldly,” as in “secular music, secular schools”?

But wait. Publishers across the nation have described the changes facing journalism as “secular.” And economists—and many news organizations—are calling the current economy “secular.” (Hmmm. Since we worship the dollar, how can an economy be “secular,” anyway?)

Pray, stop complaining. That use of “secular” is perfectly kosher, although pretty recent. Farther down—much farther down—in WNWs definition of “secular” is this: “3. a) coming or happening only once in an age or century b) lasting for an age or ages; continuing for a long time or from age to age.”

Well, that helps a lot. So is this change happening only once, or is it continuing for a long time?

You’re right!

“Secular” is used today to mean either a singular change, or one that takes a long time to occur. Think about journalism, for example. We used to talk about the industry’s “cycles”—newsprint prices rose, newsprint prices fell, and the fortunes of the newspaper business followed. But those cycles have been replaced by what appears to be a one-time, long-term change, which could itself revert to cycles, but still shows no signs of doing so.

The term “secular” has become popular among people grasping for a single word to explain how very fundamental so many of the changes are. In economics, the word is really jargon, but that doesn’t stop economists—or the journalists quoting them—from using it. In the past six months, usages of “secular” in articles that had nothing to do with religion rivaled usages of the more traditional kind. One publication noted, for example, that “The economy is undergoing a more profound, secular erosion that has resulted in it giving up a little more of its share of global output every year in this decade.”

Still, an awful lot of readers are going to see “secular” and think “not religious,” not “acyclical,” and could end up confused. If “secular” is going to be used in more “secular” contexts, it would be a good idea to allow readers to follow along in their hymnals, giving them hints until they know it by heart.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.