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NewsYou Don't Say

Suit the action to the word

Dick Cheney

Responding on Twitter to a tweet about my "In a word" post today on crescendo, @delightfulrepas wrote, "Would love to see Mr McIntyre address the injury to 'actionable.' "

Let it not be said that I shy away from a challenge.

Actionable is a fine old word in English, carrying proudly since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the meaning "giving cause for legal action." You may say anything you like about my views on grammar and usage, but if you publish some demonstrably false and injurious statement of fact about me, I will consider it actionable and will likely engage a shark of a lawyer to sue you and procure a judgment. Damn good word.

What I expect has got up the nose of @delightfulrepas is the sense "able to be used as a basis or reason for action," as Merriam-Webster records, citing a 2002 New Republic article: "First, Dick Cheney questioned the patriotism of Democrats who implied that Bush had actionable intelligence about September 11."

I further suspect that @delightfulrepas scorns this usage as an ignorant novelty. Ignorant it may be, but it is not all that novel. The OED records an 'able to be acted upon or put into practice; useful, practical" sense from 1913: "Refuse to let the mind wallow and dawdle around a problem without arriving at definite, actionable conclusions."

Here is the problem. Actionable in the newer sense has become a cant word in government and business among the self-important who tend to inflate the magnitude of their deliberations and decisions; the sort of people at whom we like to sneer, and why not? But it is at the same time a word with an established sense that is clear in context; I have yet to say an example of the cant use of actionable that causes confusion with the older legal sense.

As a practical matter, you can go ahead and sneer at the self-important, trusting that in time they will tire of this cant word and move on to another equally irritating. Otherwise, if the newer usage sticks in the language, you'll just have to shrug and accept it.


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