Baseline

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Anonymous writes:
As far as I can understand, baseline is the latest project plan and when something is “baselined” I guess it is checked (or reconciled) back to the plan???

Tony responds:
The new verb (new to me, at least) “to baseline” is a great example of how a bit of clear, useful jargon can become useless, opaque jargon in one step. The idea of a baseline (a noun) is specific in its definition and, at least in social science and management circles, fairly consistently applied.

It’s not a term common in ordinary conversation, but if you know what it means, you will almost always use it to describe the same thing other people use it for. It designates a statistic, a place, or a set of circumstances to which other (usually future) events can be compared. It’s rare, in my experience, to see “baseline” used in any other way, or to have a hard time understanding what it refers to.

The Oxford English Dictionary (which doesn’t yet recognize the single, unhyphenated word, but acknowledges “base-line”) traces this basic meaning at least as far back as 19th century astrophysics, where a “base” referred to a point in space from which to measure the movement of other celestial bodies. That’s a technical idea, true enough. But it’s precise, consistent, and not hard to explain.

Unfortunately, English has a fondness for making verbs out of nouns. So the verb “to baseline” was probably inevitable, once the idea of setting baselines for measurement became ubiquitous. The trouble is, the noun requires specificity, but the verb leaves wide latitude for vagueness. (That, by itself, will make the verb hugely popular among management consultants, who like to dazzle you with Delphic vocabulary and then charge you buckets of money no matter what results you get.)

Use the noun “baseline,” and you pretty much have to specify what the baseline is. The word is useful mainly in phrases like “with X as a baseline,” or “using a baseline of Y.” It’s hard to think of a use of the word that doesn’t force you to specify what is to be compared with what. But it’s quite easy to say “the results of the plan will be measured and baselined.” Ummm … baselined against what? Measured when? Compared how? You can hear the champagne corks popping all over consultant-land! Here’s a nice, effervescent word, with bright hints of silicon and expensive algorithms, that actually promises nothing in particular! Perfect for anyone who charges $500 an hour or more!

“Baseline” is a concrete idea. Because it’s only a noun, it must necessarily be accompanied by some specific verbs, objects, and antecedent nouns, specifying what the baseline is and who is going to compare it with what. By contrast, “baselined” is a passive, inert, largely unbounded abstraction — the very model of modern jargon. It doesn’t say who does the “baselining,” what the baseline is, or how the comparison is to be conducted. Presto: with the addition of a single letter (the “d”), a solid, practical, occasionally even interesting word becomes verbal pabulum, fit only for the gullible or the toothless.

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