I have a question about the word "devolve." The most traditional usage, if I judge by the OED, is to mean "to pass down to or onto," as in a title or an inheritance or similar. Other related meanings of "falling to" or "rolling down" to or upon are related to this. I see this quite a bit these days in British media in the discussion of Brexit. My question has to do with the usage I hear and see quite often now in the US which is to mean "deteriorate." I see this quite a lot in US publications (e.g. Newsweek recently: "Should ramped-up tensions between the U.S. and North Korea devolve into outright nuclear war..." or a recent article in Food and Wine magazine asking, "Will the concept evolve (devolve?) into murder-mystery theater?") I see it constantly in academic writing as well. The OED gives this usage as 8b, quite far down the list of meanings, and gives only one example (from 1830, a "scholar devolving into a buffoon"), origin obscure. Even though the origin of this usage seems to emerge before Darwin, I would guess that the widespread usage nowadays in this sense of degeneration is due to a conceptual pairing with "evolution" (implying positive progress), even though this is only based on an apparent similarity of devolve with "de-evolve," not a real etymological basis in the word. This usage seems wrong or at least questionable to me--but maybe I am just being too rigid.

Is this a usage that you deem legitimate enough to be tolerated, despite the misunderstanding of meaning that seems to drive it, or does the false foundation (evolve vs "devolve" rather than de-evolve) make it sloppy usage on some level? Or is it a popular misuse to be avoided, akin to sports athletes and everyone else claiming they feel "truly humbled" by a victory rather than honored?

  • sorry, I mean "permissible"!
    – Ryan
    May 2, 2017 at 20:39
  • 1
    And also, there is no de-evolve in biology: it is a nonsense term based, as you say, on a false dichotomy regarding (biolgical) evolution. So the usages you are familiar with comport to the meaning sans Darwinian theory.
    – Yorik
    May 2, 2017 at 20:46
  • The Word “Devolve” Makes Me Cringe! medium.com/the-philipendium/…
    – user66974
    May 2, 2017 at 21:35
  • Wow. I had no clue that "devolve" meant anything other than the recent, trendy U.S. meaning. I looked in my 1993 American Heritage College Dictionary - it has no mention of this meaning. I would love to stop using "devolve" this way, but I have no adequate substitute to describe the phenomenon of a streaming series starting off well and then gradually becoming terrible.
    – cruthers
    Oct 8, 2021 at 2:55

3 Answers 3


It is a less common usage but a valid one. It is the second meanging listed in the American Heritage Dictionary. This usage appears to be from the 18th century:


To degenerate or deteriorate gradually:

  • After several hours the discussion had devolved into a shouting match.



to degenerate through a gradual change or evolution:

  • The scene devolved into chaos.



  • The de- in devolve is a clue to its meaning. When things devolve, they deteriorate, degenerate, fall apart, go to the dogs, and generally end up worse When a classroom gets loud and rowdy, a teacher might say the class has devolved.

  • There is another, less negative, meaning of devolve. You can devolve responsibilities: for example, the U.S. government could devolve a certain responsibility to the states. The non-negative meaning of devolve is kind of like passing things on in a will. If I devolve something to you, you inherit it.



(intransitive) To degenerate; to break down. [from 18th c.]

  • A discussion about politics may devolve into a shouting match.


  • Very true! One of the accepted meanings of devolve is indeed deteriorate [Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives 3 meanings for the word: (1.1) to pass on (something, such as responsibility, rights, or powers) from one person or entity to another; (1.2) pass by transmission or succession; (1.3) fall or be passed usually as a responsibility or obligation; (2) to come by or as if by flowing down (figurative/ literal); (3) to degenerate through a gradual change or evolution] So we can infer that when used in the sense of 'deteriorate', "devolve" does mean negative evolution. May 3, 2017 at 0:01

I'm pretty sure de-evolve isn't even a word in the first place, so I'd be inclined to say that devolve carries its exact meaning and isn't any sort of improper shortening. When it is used (like in the media frequently), it's an allusion to the concept of evolution, loosely implying that something or some matter has become more chaotic, more crude, and less sophisticated in some way. For something to evolve, on the other hand, implies that it has grown in some productive way and become more sophisticated or nuanced.


From Etymology online:

Figurative sense of "to cause to pass down, transfer (something) from one person to another" is from 1520s; sense of "be transferred or transmitted" is from 1550s. Meaning "to degenerate" is by 1830. Related: Devolved; devolving.

So, by 190 years ago it meant "de-evolve." I'd say that's an established meaning.

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