Operationalize

Those who set out to cure jargon and other self-important speech take their place in a humblingly long line of earlier scolds-a lineage stretching back at least to Aristophanes-who had in their day no more success than this essay is likely to have now. The prospect of success, in fact, never seems dimmer than when one confronts American jargon’s answer to Original Sin, the perennial habit of attaching -ize to everything in sight (maximize, strategize, localize, institutionalize, prioritize, and on and on).

In his devastating 1975 essay “Ize Front,” the venerable NBC journalist Edwin Newman complained: “-ize is thought to have a businesslike ring or, what in some cases is just as good, to sound technical…. What those who use -ize overlook is that it is usually unnecessary and always dull-it is a leaden syllable that imposes monotony on the language by making many words sound the same…. I have been told that a television news broadcaster in Alabama announced that a deputy sheriff, killed in the line of duty, would be funeralized the following day, and there is, unfortunately, no reason to doubt it.”

Despite Newman’s best efforts (and his application of methods from outright ridicule to gentle erudition and literate wit), -ize is still with us a quarter-century after the funeralization of that Alabama deputy. As a result, we continue to endure sentences like this one, which appeared recently in a foundation publication: “Long-standing museums [are] seeking to reconceptualize their permanent collections as civic resources.”

How are we to suppose these museums “conceptualized” their collections before? As matters of civic indifference? As exclusive playthings of the pampered elite? As parasites upon the body politic? The sentence doesn’t just confuse the reader, it invites all sorts of unflattering speculation.

Among the worst of the evilize is OPERATIONALIZE, merely because it enjoys some of the simplest and most obvious synonyms in this whole essay. Most of the time, you can easily funeralize all six windy syllables and substitute “carry out,” “work on,” or simply “do.” For example: “The next phase will be for the coalition to operationalize the elements of its plan.” Try “do what it planned.” “The challenge will be in operationalizing the six steps to financial independence.” Try “taking the six steps.” “Having carefully negotiated a consensus process, the more difficult challenge will be to operationalize it.” Once you fix the dangling participle at the beginning of that sentence, you can substitute “carry it out.”

The problem with OPERATIONALIZE is not just that it’s ugly, but that it is so sprawling a word-like an ill-planned building with too many additions-that it suggests something complicated, demanding, and obscure. It tries to awe the reader with its sheer unruliness, as if it contains so many ideas that it might be dangerous to unleash them all. Yet the closer you look, the more likely the thing is to mean nothing more than “do.” It’s a Texas-size word that, as Texan Lyndon B. Johnson once said of some Lone Star poseur, turns out to be “all hat and no cattle.”

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