The long and short of the shortlist

Overheard recently in the halls of one of metro Boston's many fine institutions of higher learning, doctoral candidate to dean: "I've heard from NYU, and they told me I'm on the long shortlist."

A while later, on the radio: mention of a Boston Globe report that Harvard University, in its quest for a new president, had managed to whittle down its candidates to a shortlist of fewer than 30.

I've been intrigued by the concept of a shortlist, or short list, as Americans outside academia are wont to write it, at least since the closing days of Jimmy Carter's single term in the White House. I remember reading an interview with one of the president's senior aides in which he expressed regret that his team never managed to communicate to the American people a "short list" of a few goals they were trying to accomplish.

A relentless listmaker myself, I utterly identified with the man's plight, however much smaller my own sphere is than the Oval Office.

Since then, I've been interested to see how "short list" has been codified, and "closed up," as we editors say, into a single word. Closing up often signals acceptance of a new concept, as when Web site became, at least at the Monitor, website, for instance.

Other times, though, a closed-up form has a different meaning from a two-word form. Compare "deadline" and "dead line." (Hey, can someone call the phone techs? I can't get dial tone!)

"Shortlist" is largely a British usage. A Google News search found only two examples in American English in the top 50 or so hits.

"Shortlists" come up often in discussions of literary awards. One reads of this or that book "shortlisted" for a prize such as the Man Booker. Then the shortlisting quickly becomes a credential to be included in all of an author's publicity material thereafter.

Shortlists abound in the sports world, too. Each time a coach quits or is fired, the resulting vacancy leads to a list, and then a shortlist, of candidates for a successor.

Some ostensible shortlists are actually pretty long. The Bangkok Post recently reported on a "shortlist" of 200 candidates for the assembly to draft a new national charter for Thailand. Someone is unclear on the concept, meseems.

At least in the academy, they speak straightforwardly of a "long shortlist," as in the exchange I overheard. But I've run across a new wrinkle at Oxford University: "An accepted practice for academic appointments is to produce an initial long shortlist based on assessment of a number of key criteria..."

An initial long shortlist? Is that a further refinement? Is the initial long shortlist followed by the intermediate long shortlist and then the final long shortlist? Or do we go from the initial shortlist to a medium shortlist – or a midlist? No, that's a publishing term.

I sense I'm not alone in thinking such search processes sound awfully cumbersome. A few years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education ran – pseudonymously – a multipart series giving an inside view of academic search from the hiring side of the table: For its target audience, it was a real cliffhanger, I'm sure.

To get back to the discussion of achieving goals in the White House – the essence of the short list the Carter aide longed for was short. The essence of the academic shortlist is list. It is used in places where comprehensiveness and inclusiveness may trump decisiveness.

Literary prizes, after all, are given to get more people buying and reading books. The more authors who can claim the "shortlist" credential, the better, I suppose, from their point of view. Similarly, the Thais want to get their new charter right.

This cover-all-bases instinct leads to shortlists that are downright long.

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