Grainy Picture

‘Granularity’ and other business jargon

For a number of years, some attendees of jargon-heavy business meetings have played “Buzzword Bingo”: Someone prints out cards with terms used almost nowhere outside of corporate boardrooms—words like “reach out to,” “incentivize,” and “drill down.” As each “buzzword” is uttered by someone in the meeting, it is marked off on attendees’ cards. The first one to get all the “buzzwords” is supposed to yell “Bingo,” though it is doubtful anyone has actually yelled that in a meeting. More likely it is texted to the other players.

Though “Buzzword Bingo” is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the silliness of those terms, it’s not uncommon for them to creep into everyday English. “There is good inventory at the million-dollar price point,” a real estate article said recently, “but some of that may be the result of reductions from higher price points.” (If you’re being paid by the word, you get double the price that way.) “Price points” shows up a lot, though not as much as “monetize,” which news organizations are desperate to do.

The meaning of many of these terms is obvious, even if they haven’t made it into dictionaries yet, because they’re logical extensions of more lexicographically acceptable terms.

Then there’s “granular.”

One publication said that the WikiLeaks cables produced a “granular picture of engagement-in-action.” In another article, a businessman is quoted as saying “We let firms go from wielding a sledgehammer of no access or limited access to a highly granular approach.” Another article said “It is easy to become too granular before senior management has agreed to a clear direction.”

Even the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, is fond of “granules”: When asked about frisking policies at airport screening points, Gibbs referred questions to Homeland Security and the TSA, saying they “will have more granularity on what all that means.” He’s used it several times in recent months.

It seems clear from those contexts that “granular” means “detailed.” But historically, “granular” means “full of grains.” Drugs with those tiny round pieces are “granular,” as are some fertilizers. Photographers used to hate photos that were “granular,” because they were too “grainy,” meaning the tone was not smooth and the picture was less clear. Do they now like “granular” photos because they’re full of details?

The use of “granular” to mean “detailed” is relatively recent: Before 1995, “granular” appeared almost exclusively in ski reports to describe snow conditions. Do a Nexis search now, though, and you’ll find a blizzard of uses that don’t include snow. It’s a word for which there was no need.

So far, few dictionaries have succumbed to defining “granular” as “detailed.” One that has is, and it’s not a flattering one: “To get overly detailed when describing something or talking about a subject.”

One might say that “granular” is the kind of information you get when you “drill down.” But let’s not. Please “reach out to” people who use it and “incentivize” them to stop.


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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , ,