Sector

An arts funder refers to grants for “experimental work in the dance sector” (note: not in dance, which maybe wouldn’t be experimental enough). A policy institute laments the lack of support for a new idea “in the political sector” (but not among politicians or among voters, or among whoever it is that inhabits the nebulous political sector).

There was a time, not so long ago, when everything in public affairs took place in an arena — the political arena, the welfare arena, the health care arena. People may have become uneasy over the ancient Roman connotations of that cliché (and thus gave it the thumbs-down, so to speak). Now the arenas are crumbling, the gladiators have taken up mathematics, and everything’s a sector.

Judging from The Oxford English Dictionary, SECTOR had only a narrow range of meanings, strictly geometrical, for about 14 centuries, starting from its late Latin origins. It referred to a segment of a circle or sphere, radiating from the center outward, and to the various mathematical processes for measuring such things. By the 18th and 19th centuries, as mathematics came to be used in more and more fields, SECTOR grew to refer to anything shaped like a slice of a circle or sphere, or to things whose form or function could be calculated by using the same techniques as for measuring a geometric sector.

Astronomers used it for portions of the celestial spheres, entomologists for wing spans and flapping mechanisms, optometrists for fields of vision. Lots of other scientists came to apply the calculation of circle- and sphere-segments to their work, in ways that any mathematician would probably have understood. And then along came the military.

Sometime during the First World War, it seems, generals stopped thinking of their fronts as lines (a pattern that had produced little more than bloodbaths) and instead envisioned pie-shaped wedges, with a command center at the pointy end and forces fanning out from there. It took only a few decades for this idea to make the metaphorical leap into economics, a field that spent most of the 20th century in thrall to the language of both mathematics and warfare. Starting with two canonical sectors (public and private), the economic pie-slicing proceeded to four by the time of the Great Depression (manufacturing, agriculture, services, and government).

It wasn’t long before there was a sector of the economy for nearly every activity under the sun. Today, Manitoba’s Agricultural Department devotes a page of its Web site to the state of the dry beans sector. A course at Berkeley helpfully applies the Ricardian model of international competition to the soyburger and beer sectors, among other things. A trade group for companies that make disposable wipes is seeking an analysis of the “wet-toilet sector” (no, it’s not a joke). Next to all that, the idea of a dance sector or a political sector hardly seems farfetched.

What it does seem, however, is meaningless. If wet toilets and soyburgers are sectors, then everything’s a sector. That is why the word can now be removed from nearly any sentence without changing the meaning a whit — proof-positive that it has taken its place among the emptiest words in the whole jargon sector.

Leave a Reply