Language Corner

Labeling Jeffrey Epstein

August 12, 2019

Jeffrey Epstein was called many things in life and death, only some of which we can publish here. An ABC news article before his death called him “Wealthy financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein”; an NBC article called him “the millionaire financier,” which may seem redundant, but keep reading; and many articles called him “disgraced financier.” A New York Times article after his death also called him a “financier,” adding that “Mr. Epstein successfully maintained a reputation as a billionaire investor, philanthropist and sophist.”

What makes someone a “financier”? We’ll come to that. First, what’s up with that “sophist”?

You might recognize it as the heart of “sophisticated,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “deprived of native or original simplicity,” such as “highly complicated or developed,” (as in “sophisticated electronic devices”) and “having a refined knowledge of the ways of the world” (as in “a sophisticated lady”). A second definition is “devoid of grossness” or “intellectually appealing.” From what we know of Jeffrey Epstein, that first definition might fit, but not that second. Both though, carry positive connotations.

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But The Times called him a “sophist,” not “sophisticated.”

In May, Michael R. Bloomberg, the “financier” and former mayor of New York, gave a commencement speech at Washington University in St. Louis. Here’s an excerpt:

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Since the dawn of democracy, there have always been those, to paraphrase Socrates, who try to make the weaker argument appear the stronger and who care more about winning debates than being truthful.

In ancient Greece, these were called Sophists—and they would have loved Twitter and Facebook.

Social media has given rise to a new golden age of sophistry—aided and abetted by blind partisanship.

That doesn’t sound complimentary. It’s not.

The true “Sophists” emerged in the fifth century B.C. and were “itinerant professional teachers and intellectuals” who “offered young wealthy Greek men an education in aretē (virtue or excellence),” according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (“Sophist” is from Latin and Greek, meaning “learned” or “wise.”)

But, the encyclopedia continues, “Due in large part to the influence of Plato and Aristotle, the term sophistry has come to signify the deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism and moral unscrupulousness.”


The Oxford English Dictionary says “sophism” entered English in the mid-14th century to mean “A specious but fallacious argument, either used deliberately in order to deceive or mislead, or employed as a means of displaying ingenuity in reasoning.” “Sophist” followed about 200 years later, with the specific meaning for “one who undertook to give instruction in intellectual and ethical matters in return for payment,” “contrasted with philosopher, and frequently used as a term of disparagement.”

The original “sophistication” entered English in the early 15th century as a negative: The verb “sophisticate” meant “To mix (commodities) with some foreign or inferior substance; to render impure in this way; to adulterate,” the OED says, while “sophistication” meant “The use or employment of sophistry; the process of investing with specious fallacies or of misleading by means of these; falsification.” It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that “sophistication” turned the corner to being a good thing, “worldly wisdom or experience; subtlety, discrimination, refinement” or “knowledge, expertise, in some technical subject,” the OED says. The “complex” nature of “sophistication” came about 1959, in reference to the complicated nature of rockets.
One could say, then, that Jeffrey Epstein was both “a sophist” and “sophisticated,” at least in the original sense.

Now, what about “financier”? While it might seem as if everyone who is called a “financier” is rich, that’s not always the case. Instead, it simply means someone engaged in “finance,” usually on a large scale, and often using public money, as a tax collector, comptroller, etc.

But if you follow Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one the Associated Press and many other news organizations use, beware of throwing around the term “financier”: As an intransitive verb, WNW says, “financier” means “to engage in financial operations, often specif. in a dishonest way.”

A “financier” is also a small cake of French origin, similar to a pound cake but lighter, which got its name because its gold color and rectangular shape resemble a bar of gold. But where the money kind of “financier” is pronounced “fin-an-SEAR” or “FINE-an-sear,” the cake kind usually is pronounced “fin-on-see-A,” the last syllable rhyming with “hey.”

So, you can write about a “financier,” and eat it, too.

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