Recently I’ve read and heard persons of advanced education and even specialized knowledge in language use the word “inchoate” in the sense of “chaotic”. This is an interesting phenomenon of language change within one generation, like “literally” coming to mean the opposite of its original meaning. What might be the reasons for this change in meaning of inchoate?
First is the fact that most educated people do not encounter the word inchoate until they have their education and so assume they must know the meaning of the word. They try to get the meaning from several sources. One is context, the other is sound similarity, and another is features of classical language borrowing. The imbalance between the two words in terms of frequency accounts for the rush to guess the meaning of inchoate and for the inaccuracy of the guess.
First, we get the classical language (Latin, although chaos is Greek) shift between t and s, so chaos but chaotic, as in intermittent and intermission. That confuses people so they are not surprised that inchoate doesn’t work just like chaos, i.e. there is no word inchoas. The prefix in- seems to fit right in with the massive use of prefixes in classical borrowings.
Next, the ch- pronounced as a k. That cinches the classical and therefore opaque origin and meaning of the words. Nevertheless, chaos is well-known and the tendency is to trace back from the unknown to the known. The classical look and behavior of the words supports that tendency.
Then there is the meaning. Most events in their incipient stages or states, their inchoate states, are a bit confused, disorganized, so the fusion of chaos with inchoate works fairly well in many contexts. As I read and listen, I see more and more the spread of the word inchoate, kind of like albeit, words formerly of low frequency coming into use due to advancing levels of education.
Finally, the similarity in sound is a classic pardon the word play condition and prompter of folk etymology, and we are really dealing here with folk etymology in its pure sense: people trying to make sense of an unknown word by relating it to a known word as best they can.