Ever been to a dinner party where the conversation was so terribly sophisticated that you found yourself wishing you had a sophisticated teleportation device? Tim Bowen looks at how this Word of the week has gradually changed in meaning.

This is a word which has travelled a long way from its original meaning. In modern English it is generally used in three ways. Firstly, it can refer to something that is advanced and perhaps complicated in design, as in ‘This surveillance system is extremely sophisticated’. It can also refer to people and their behaviour, as in ‘Jane is a very sophisticated person', meaning that she is highly cultured, and ‘The conversation at the dinner-table was extremely sophisticated’. Finally, it can also mean ‘educated’ or ‘informed’, as in ‘Consumers are very sophisticated these days and know exactly what they want’.

The opposite of sophisticated, namely unsophisticated, meaning ‘simple’ both in the sense of people and things, provides an insight into the origins of the word. In medieval times, unsophisticated meant ‘pure’ or ‘unspoilt’. When referring to people this meant that they were natural or simple. When referring to commodities such as foodstuffs it meant that they were natural and had not been tampered with.  Anything sophisticated, on the other hand, had been adulterated or corrupted in some way.