When Brian Williams said he had “conflated” his memories of what happened with his helicopter in Iraq in 2003, it sent “conflate” to the top of the list of words looked up at Merriam-Webster.com.
That dictionary’s definition of “conflate” is “to bring together” (as in “fuse”) and “confuse,” or “to combine (as two readings of a text) into a composite whole.”
Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one the Associated Press and many other journalism organizations use, defines “conflate” only as “to combine or mix (two variant readings into a single text, etc.).”
If you think Brian Williams was simply mistaken, his memories “conflated” in “the fog of memory,” as Williams put it, you might want to use M-W’s definition. If you think he was just lying, you might prefer WNW’s.
But we’re not here to take sides. We’re here only to tell you where words come from and how they’re used.
“Conflate” comes from the Latin conflare, “to blow together, stir up, raise, accomplish; also to melt together, melt down (metals),” The Oxford English Dictionary says. Its first use, around 1583, referred to a “tumour conflated of a melancholious humour.” The “melancholy humor” referred to black bile, one of the four humors that early medicine believed were responsible for the health (or illness) of the human body. Black bile represented the earth; the others were blood, the sanguine humor, representing air; yellow bile, the choleric humor, representing fire; and phlegm, the phlegmatic humor, representing water (of course).
In 1885, the OED says, “conflate” was first used to mean “To combine or fuse two variant readings of a text into a composite reading; to form a composite reading or text by such fusion.” (Note that the OED also does not use “confuse” in its definition.)
It’s not the most common of words. People might use it to mean “equate” two concepts with a sense that leaves something out, as in “conflating” Islam with terrorism. To do so, that implies, is to ignore the good parts of Islam. Others might use it to mean something closer to “confuse,” as in warnings “not to conflate essential funding” for Homeland Security “with the political fight over immigration.” So if it’s that easy to “conflate” meanings of “conflate,” maybe it was the perfect word for Williams to use.
Regardless, its use in books certainly jumped between 1980 and 2000 before leveling off, as this Google ngram shows:
“Conflate” can be a verb or an adjective, though its use as the latter is rare these days. One noun form is “conflation,” which, to some, sounds a lot like “conflagration,” “a large destructive fire,” “a war,” or “a conflict.”
Williams has certainly created a “conflagration” with his “conflation.” Whether it ends up more like a destructive fire or just a conflict will emerge from the fog of time.