We're all informavores now, hunting down and consuming data as our ancestors once sought woolly mammoths and witchetty grubs.
- Rachel Chalmers

There was an article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago that remarked on the growing use of the term granularity outside its original, mainly scientific domain. The term now seems to have achieved buzzword status, as a stand-in for the more prosaic specificity, or in other contexts, a more formal term for nitty-gritty (to make a small tip-o-the-hat to last month's Lounge subject).

It is often remarked that we live in the age of technocreep (see link below), in which modern technology invades and pervades every aspect of life, and this phenomenon makes a handy frame for observations about contemporary language use - journalists use it all the time. The word granularity did indisputably begin its career in a technical context. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1882: "The apical cells of these internal rows are distinguished by their size and by the granularity of their protoplasm." When we read this sentence at a remove of 125 years we have no difficulty making sense of it. No one would argue granularity wasn't a good word choice here: native speakers would guess, without having ever seen the word, that it meant "grainlike or granular quality." Since then, granularity has become established as a technical term in various scientific areas: photography, digital graphics, and electronic data transmission, for example.

If we go back a little further in the timeline of English we find other words in the granularity family: for example, there's granular (first OED citation: 1794), granule (OED 1652), and finally the mother of them all, grain (14th century). Grain has been remarkably constant in its denotation all these many years: it started out meaning, and still means, the seeds of a cereal plant. So in a longer view, granularity, in its new buzzword sense, is not so much a borrowing from science, but a further iteration of abstraction from an area of language that, presumably, has a lot to do with why we have language in the first place: food. The fact that a word originally concerned with food now has a meaning mainly concerned with information is no accident: indeed, it joins a number of such words that have taken a similar career path.

Another word that began being about food and, centuries later, has morphed into an abstract sense dealing mainly with information is feed. Feed makes its first appearance as a noun in English in the 16th century, a time when its near relatives in English (food and fodder) were already established. It wasn't until the 19th century that feed began its slow departure from food and started to mean the process of supplying a machine with what it needed to perform its work. Soon thereafter, feed also began to designate the material supplied in this fashion.

Electronic communication in the 20th century provided a new job for feed: a broadcast supplied regularly or continuously to a number of receiving stations (e.g., a network or satellite feed). Now, in the Internet age, feed has moved on once more: to designate a stream of information delivered as it is updated to subscribers, via the now ubiquitous Atom feed or RSS feed. All of this is quite a bit further than shouting distance from "food for cattle," where it all began; but in the case of feed, the metaphor has not traveled quite as far as the one for granularity: whether ingested by brain or tummy, the notion of "uniform substance delivered in a steady stream" has persisted in the notion of feed. For us moderns, however, the insatiable appetite is for information, and these evolving patterns of meaning in food words establish pretty clearly that information is the new food.

Our last case (though there are many others) of an Old English food word that now enjoys a resurgence of productivity in an information sense is ware. It began its life as a designation for articles of manufacture (such as one might sell), and soon moved on to designate items of marketable field and farm produce. Ware lent itself to combining fairly early on: codware (a now obsolete term for legumes or pulses) appeared in 1398.

By the 18th century, the notion of "article of manufacture" and "foodstuff" met up in the word ware, as attested in the famous nursery rhyme:

Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair
Said Simple Simon to the pieman "Let me taste your ware."

The modern vogue of ware is due mainly to the development, in the 16th century, of the term hardware. This word occupied its niche in the language in a fairly predictable way for more than three centuries until the mid 1940s, when pioneering computer engineers had the admirable intuition to use hardware to describe the physical, metal, relatively fixed aspects of computers, or "calculating machines" as they then were.

This designation effectively created the void that was soon filled (first OED citation: 1960) by software: That is, the ethereal parts of a computer's instructions that you can, in theory, do something about. Software opened the door to -ware as a combining form for organized computer programs, and now there is no end in sight. We have courseware, liveware, brochureware, spyware, malware, firmware, middleware, adware, freeware, groupware, slackware, bloatware, censorware, crippleware, trialware, scumware. Most of these have not made their way into mainstream dictionaries, and many probably never will, but all enjoy currency among speakers and popular writers today and they provide a justification for the coinage of many more of their kind.

There's no evidence in sight that the information age is drawing to a close, and we expect that there are many more food terms that will make the figurative leap to information in the coming years; perhaps concepts related to indigestion are now ripe for exploitation!

Michael Quinion's World Wide Words has an entry on informavore pertinent to the subject at hand:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-inf3.htm

Here are links to Paul McFedries' original posting about the word technocreep and informavore on his website WordSpy, which we visit with some regularity:

http://www.wordspy.com/words/techno-creep.asp http://www.wordspy.com/words/informavore.asp

The Washington Post article that set us a-whirring about this topic is here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/06/AR2007020601872.html

Finally, we like to use Urbandictionary.com for definitions of words that are not ready for prime-time yet; it has some lively attempts at some of the various -ware compounds noted above that are presently eschewed by more mainstream dictionaries:

http://www.urbandictionary.com

[Editor's note: The Urban Dictionary contains mature content]


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Sunday April 1st 2007, 6:26 AM
Comment by: Adolf V. (Lawrenceville, GA)
Fun to read and informative! Keep up the good work.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 7:19 AM
Comment by: Maged A.
wonderful. make more similar issues.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Jackie M.
Wonderfully satisfying. "Feed" us more please.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Bruce R.
The term granularity is frequently used in the cost estimating and earned value community to describe a deeper scope about a total cost or schedule. For example, "Bringing the work breakdown structure to level 5 instead of level 2 would make the cost and schedule more granular." is a perfectly acceptable expression to highlight that making something more granular is the same thing as making something more detailed.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 10:25 AM
Comment by: Halyna D.
It's splendid, interesting article. I've enjoed it very much. Make more similar issues.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Phil S.
Your invocation of the terms "hardware" and "software" remind me of whimsical definitions of these terms: Hardware comprises those parts of a computer that can be hit with a hammer; Those parts that can only be cursed at are software.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Jack A.
In the software world I suppose a "bug" would have the same sort of effect as a bug in a plant. Although I think the first use was actually applied to hardware when a moth caused a short in a circuit in an early computer.
Sunday April 1st 2007, 12:42 PM
Comment by: Morton S.
Do you know at what point feed, in its transformation from food, came to mean what is fed to animals, poultry and fish? I sense "manufactured feed" might have been used before anyone thought of saying "manufactured food."
Sunday April 1st 2007, 4:33 PM
Comment by: Linda H.
The word I think of in terms of "ingestibles" (not food per se) is alcoholic. It's been morphed into "workaholic," "bookaholic" (of which I am one), "sexaholic" and just about any other addiction you can imagine.
Monday April 2nd 2007, 2:03 PM
Comment by: Lydia K.
Enjoyable acticle. Agree with Bruce Reynolds - I often hear granularity used in the same manner. Seeking information at a more granual level seems to resonate deeper than seeking details. -Thank you
Monday April 2nd 2007, 5:20 PM
Comment by: William T.
I've been asked by my funders to increase the granularity of the information I provide with regard to my use of their money. Ok, fine. But at what point does increased granularity simply become a data stream? How far can granularity go? Does granularity imply "value added" data or information?
Tuesday April 3rd 2007, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Daniel S.
Great article. Emphasizes the idea that the words we use designate verbal concepts that have a more or less intuitive link to their definitions. Whether or not the users of the novel definitions are aware of those links. More fodder for all of us informavores.

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