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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

granular

(2000’s | computerese | “precise,” “precisely categorized,” “well-organized,” “detailed,” “distinct”)

The new meaning of this expression has become ingrained (sorry) in our language rather quickly. Twenty years ago it turned up occasionally in computer talk — generally modifying “data” or “information” — now it turns up in all sorts of speech. Like many expressions born of computer jockeys, it is rather vague and indiscriminate, particularly ironic in light of its meaning, and so it has spread to modify lots of things since the dawn of the new millennium. A recent list drawn from LexisNexis: “focus,” “workloads,” “control,” “detail,” “list,” “insight,” “goals,” “analysis,” “stories,” and “urea” (just wanted to see if you were paying attention). And there are times when the equivocator in me wants it to be replaced by “granulated.” Take this clause from 1999: “Because precise capacity planning requires a highly granular collection of network traffic data . . .” It’s not the collection that’s granular; it’s the data. But I like the idea of a “granulated collection,” in which the data is chopped and ground ever more finely, perhaps to the point where we would have to call it “powder(ed).” Excuse me, I have to go powder my data.

There is at least a notional connection between the new meaning and the old, which was firmly literal, describing the consistency of sand or table salt, too coarse to be powder, too fine to be pellets. Useful in the laboratory and the kitchen, it had three fields, broadly speaking: industrial processes, meteorology, where it modified “snow,” and cuisine. “Granular” is about two hundred years old (“granulate” is older still), but only recently has it developed any kind of figurative life. In computerese, it suggests more of a sliding scale than an absolute state; data is stored, organized, and retrieved in more or less granular ways, with more granular understood to be better. Greater granularity implies more than taking a data set and channeling it into new and finer categories; it also implies more reliable access, and perhaps, as a consequence, data made useful in more contexts or fields.

Computerese has taken a number of terms with primarily physical applications and used them to talk about things that have little or no corporeality. The key change undergone by such three-dimensional words drafted into computerese is precisely that surrender of dimension. (Is data one-dimensional? Two? Three? N? Or none?) “Access,” “bug,” “folder,” “handshake,” “packet,” “virus.” “Granular” is an adjective, not a noun, which seems noteworthy. Not all computer terminology comes from existing words, but a lot of it does, and none of the examples adduced above seems to have taken any great semantic twists or turns as they settled into the new dialect. Even “granular” seems a logical enough borrowing, if not quite as right as some of the nouns. As noted above, computer whizzes don’t have much of a way with words, but their comprehension seems solid and straightforward in these instances, at least. Give the geeks their due.

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