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Nancy Allison wrote:
> When did this word go from meaning "subject to or affording ground for an
> action or suit at law" to "something that can be acted on"?
> My 1981 Webster's Collegiate Dictionary provides only the first definition.
> It cracks me up when I find the term in the usual turgid official prose in
> what is evidently intended to be the second sense. Example:
> "The Executive Committee will follow clearly defined process that is timely,
> cost-effective, and actionable."
>From William Safire's "On Language" column in the Sunday New York Times
Magazine of January 11, 2004:
''We've got to have that actionable intelligence,'' said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez
in Baghdad in September. Three months later, when Homeland Security Secretary
Tom Ridge was asked if the basis for raising the threat level to Code Orange
came from information gleaned from captives of Al Qaeda, he said, ''If it is
actionable, we would share it.''
Here is a word that has undergone semantic shift, and lawyers are muttering
about it. Even before 1591, when William Lambarde complained that his client
had been ''baited, and bitten with libels and slanders that be not actionable,''
that word has meant ''subject to an action at law,'' legalese for ''you have just
furnished me grounds for a lawsuit.'' When one candidate says of another,
''You're a jerk,'' that's fair comment. But when he says, ''You're a convicted
criminal'' -- and the candidate so verbally assaulted was never a felon -- the
smear is actionable.
Now the main sense of the word has been broadened to ''that which can be
acted on,'' or ''act-on-able.'' Some intelligence may be useful to know --
Osama bin Laden probably has a kidney ailment -- but if the C.I.A. could get
his cave's address, that data would be actionable.
Mathematicians cannot figure the general public's theft of their parameter;
musicians tootle that their crescendo does not mean ''climax''; chemists react
to the rip-off of their carbon-based organic. Now lawyers, like Hamlet, have
lost the name of actionable. Sue me.
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