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Has there been a subtle shift in the definition of the phrase "conspiracy theory" in recent years?

I've noticed the phrase popping up occasionally in conversations or in online forums, YouTube, etc., where the speaker equates "conspiracy theory" with "speculation". As in "It may just be a conspiracy theory, but I've heard rumors CBS is going to change the airtime of my show from Friday to Monday evening!"

Maybe a similar phenomenon to the popular misuse of the word "literally"?

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    In your example, the use may be more-or-less literal (but not conventional), as the presenter(?) herself is not aware of the move, thus implying that she is excluded from the discussion (if any), and thus possibly feels conspired against. (Although a 'conspiracy theory' would conventionally include powerful actors/the state conspiring against the people, not against one person.) – We oath to creation Jan 25 at 17:01
  • A conspiracy theory, in the standard, literal sense, is an attempt at an explanation of some phenomenon, where it is uncontroversial that the phenomenon itself has occurred. In the example, the speaker is merely speculating that the change will occur, and offers no explanation of it; that's why there is no conspiracy theory in the standard sense in that example. – jsw29 Jan 25 at 17:27
  • ...on the other hand, some dictionaries are now listing the figurative sense of "literal": go figure – Cascabel Jan 25 at 18:33
  • Are you asking (1) whether such use in fact occurs, or (2) whether it should be regarded as a mistake or as a sign that there has been a 'change in definition'? Given that you say that you, yourself have noticed that the phrase is used that way, and provide an example of it, the answer to (1) seems to be clearly 'yes'. One's answer to (2) will likely depend on where one stands on the prescriptivism-descriptivism spectrum. – jsw29 Jan 25 at 23:58
  • @jsw29 Yes and yes. I'm asking for independent confirmation that this we're seeing this trend in the English language (which admittedly may be hard to establish), and is it simply misinterpretation of the current meaning of "conspiracy theory" or has the meaning of the phrase officially changed? – RobertF Jan 26 at 19:42
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So, conspiracy theory has been around for ~150 years in the English language: Etymonline.com

Conspiracy theory "explanation of an event or situation involving unwarranted belief that it is caused by a conspiracy among powerful forces" emerged in mid-20c. (by 1937) and figures in the writings of, or about, Charles Beard, Hofstadter, Veblen, etc., but the degree of paranoia and unreasonableness implied in each use is not always easy to discern. The phrase was used from 19c. in a non-pejorative sense "the theory that a (certain) conspiracy exists," especially in court cases. Its use in general reference to theories of hidden cabals pulling wires behind the scenes of national or global events is by 1871.

The OED definition is: OED

the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.

So,

has there been a subtle shift in the definition of the phrase "conspiracy theory" in recent years?

My sense is there has been no change in the definition, but usage has increased and the actors have changed: from state actors to individuals who feel affronted by " the man!"

  • 'My sense is there has been no change in the definition, but usage has increased and the actors have changed: from state actors to individuals who feel affronted by " the man!" ' Hmm, maybe. But that does seem like a definition change to me. In my example, speculating that a bunch of CBS executives changed the TV lineup isn't a conspiracy theory in the usual sense of the phrase. – RobertF Jan 25 at 18:51
  • I hear, in AmE individuals complaining of life's pitfalls as being conspiracy theories! – lbf Jan 25 at 18:58
  • According to the quoted definitions, a conspiracy theory is always an attempt to explain some phenomenon. If the phrase is used for anything other than an attempt to explain something, then it is used in a way that is not captured by the quoted definitions. In the OP's example, nobody is trying to explain anything; rather a prediction of a future event is made. – jsw29 Jan 26 at 0:11

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