The measure - or metric - of our wide-ranging success

"Eerie" isn't an adjective that comes up all that often in the work of a wordsmith, but I just might apply it to the coincidence of "everybody" suddenly doing the same less-than-brilliant thing with the language at the same time. These verbal misfires then prompt an answering volley of criticism from the usage mavens.

The critics, for instance, inveigh against people who say "showstopper" when they mean "deal-breaker," and use "gridlock" as an all-purpose synonym for congestion on, for instance, the California freeways.

Whew. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. With no grid, there's nothing to lock. "Gridlock" has New York, not Los Angeles, written all over it.

Now I find that others are getting energized on another point where I've wondered whether I'm the only one: false ranges, aka "everything from." For instance, "In her wide-ranging theater career, she has played everything from Third Buttercup From the Right to Lady Macbeth." Some range, huh? The phrase is often used, though, in situations without even that much logic. "Such as" is often a better construction.

The critic Dorothy Parker is widely reported to have dismissed an early performance by Katherine Hepburn by saying she "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." The quip worked because it plays off the well-known range "from A to Z."

But when we read, "Colleges from Harvard to Podunk State are requiring students to have laptops," the range is less clear. Is that schools across Massachusetts? East Coast to West? Expensive to bargain priced?

Even worse is the "everything from" variant. The St. Petersburg Times reported recently on two new futures markets offering hurricane contracts: "An Irish company, Trade Exchange Network, last month added hurricanes to the menu at www.intrade.com which features contracts on everything from Hillary Clinton's nomination for president to Osama bin Laden's capture."

The rise of "everything from" may come from a desire for terms to get a grip somehow on, you know, all that stuff out there. That may be behind the new use of "metric" to mean a gauge for success, metaphorical and often numerical, in a field where success can be hard to define. For instance, Marketing Vox reported a few weeks ago, "Madison Avenue has turned to 'consumer engagement' as its new media planning metric - one that could replace 'frequency' as the multiplier in most media plans."

Some dismiss this new usage as needless jargon, and others ask, "What's wrong with good old-fashioned 'measure'?" But I think I understand the appeal of "metric."

For one thing, "measure" does double duty already, as both an amount measured out, literally or metaphorically ("He was able to react to their outburst with a measure of calm") and the device itself - a tape measure, for instance. And "metric" sounds much crisper, with its hard "c" ending.

This "metric" is the critical number that tells us what we need to know: a company's stock price, a nation's unemployment rate, a slugger's batting average. In other endeavors - trying to bring democracy to Iraq, trying to make money on the Internet - it's not so clear what success looks like. No wonder people grasp for "metrics."

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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