Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Going Quant, Going Rogue
When I read in the New York Times recently that everyone is going quant in "the Age of Metrics," my first thought was, "Is that anything like Sarah Palin going rogue?" What's going on with these new ways of going, anyhow?
Here is the full excerpt from "Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception?" by Anand Giridharadas:
In the Age of Metrics, vocation after vocation is discovering numbers. Doctors are going quant with evidence-based medicine, which promises to improve care by quantifying different treatments' probabilities of success. Wall Street has gone quant, with financial models automating trading — sometimes brilliantly, sometimes disastrously. Academia has gone quant, with once-humanistic fields like politics, on which I work at Harvard, studied in a more rigorous way, but at the price of having ever less to say about the world's big questions. Even charity, built on the instinct of altruism, has gone quant.
Quant started out as shorthand for either quantitative or quantitative analysis, and the Oxford English Dictionary traces that colloquial contraction back to the late 19th century. An 1896 compendium of student slang glosses quant as "quantitative analysis, or quantitative chemistry." Quant eventually made the leap from chemistry students to the world of finance, where it got extended in various other ways. For instance, quant also came to mean "quantitative analyst," as in this 1979 quote from Forbes: "Russell isn't a 'quant,' one of the young consultants who do much of their monitoring by questionnaire and most of their evaluating by quantitative analysis."
The idea of different financial sectors going quant, i.e., getting taken over by quantitative analytical approaches, started appearing in the '90s. In the June 1, 1996 issue of Investor Relations, Andrew Skirton, chief executive of BZW Investment Management, linked quantitative analysis to so-called passive management: "It feels at times that the whole world's going passive. The whole world's going quant. It isn't." Then in the Jan. 25, 1997 Times of London, Skirton's colleague Bill McQuaker, quantitative strategist at BZW Securities, echoed the theme: "It is inconceivable that the whole market is going to go quant."
Since then, go quant has been a handy turn of phrase for financial headline writers. "First Capital goes quant," announced Pensions & Investments on Feb. 7, 2000. ABA Banking Journal on Nov. 1, 2005 wrote: "Lenders go 'quant': banks increasingly embrace analytic tools for business lending at a time when credit quality may have peaked." Pretty soon the quant trend spread far and wide: as Bob Litterman of Goldman Sachs told BusinessDay on July 9, 2009, "The world is going quant, and there are no secrets!"
Going rogue, meanwhile, is an expression that Sarah Palin has embraced in the title of her memoir, after it had been applied to her by John McCain's staffers for "going off the reservation" near the end of the 2008 presidential campaign. Merriam-Webster offered this handy explanation when it listed rogue in its Top Ten Words for 2009: "When used in the phrase 'going rogue,' the word is used as an adjective. The relevant adjectival sense is: resembling or suggesting a rogue elephant especially in being isolated, aberrant, dangerous, or uncontrollable."
In October 2008, when the phrase go rogue first started getting used by the McCain camp, Mark Liberman of Language Log noted that it wasn't particularly new: "A search on Google Books suggests that it's especially popular in science fiction and fantasy, most often applied to robots, cyborgs, or other intelligent machines such as spaceship AIs, but also to members of fantasy races such as spell-bound animal spirits, vampires, elves, and so on." The OED suggests a military origin, as in this 1965 quote from the New Statesman: "A group of American bombers ... go rogue through a mechanical foul-up."
In an earlier Language Log post, Liberman had considered the more general class of phrases consisting of go and an adjective complement, like go public, go native, and go missing. The OED lists these under the entry for go with the definition, "To pass into a certain condition. Chiefly implying deterioration." That "deterioration" is on display in such examples as go bad, go ballistic, go bananas, go bankrupt, go crazy, go mad, go nuclear, go nuts, go sour, go wrong, and so forth. (Go missing is frequently criticized by American prescriptivists for supposedly being ungrammatical, but it's no less grammatical than any of these other go phrases.)
Going rogue certainly fits with dangerous types of going like going ballistic and going crazy, especially when the image of a rampaging elephant is brought to mind. Going quant doesn't seem quite so scary, though the "Age of Metrics" described by Giridharadas feels pretty bleak to a qualitatively minded fellow like me. Once we go quant, can we ever go qual again?