Mind your language

Word of the week: ‘Granular’, a word used to suggest in-depth analysis

1 December 2018

9:00 AM

1 December 2018

9:00 AM

‘Just two sugars,’ said my husband as I passed him his tea. He is cutting down. I doubt he would have a better understanding of the effects of sugar on him, or the effects of his character on his sugar intake, if he took a granular view of the granulated sugar he shovels into his cup.

I can see why granular has become such a successful vogue term, since it opposes the unspecific or even creatively ambiguous language that plagues us, from Human Resources departments and, ahem, Brexit, that cursed sinkhole of sense. The hope is to tether inflated dirigibles of verbiage to fixed points. Normally now, granular simply means ‘detailed’. ‘Maps on smartphones still have big gaps,’ someone wrote in the Times. ‘Now, to make them more granular, technology companies are returning to the tools relied on by Victorian cartographers: boot leather and sweat.’

The replacement of granular with detailed would make no difference. Both words use similar metaphors: granular from an idea of particles of sand, salt or seeds, and detailed from the French word for ‘cut in pieces’. The shared territory of granular and detailed often brings both beasts into the same paddock. A reviewer in the Telegraph, writing of a thriller, said that ‘the book has a granular sense of detail, concerning legal procedure’ Similarly, the Times referred to ‘granular details of the attack’.

In a less figurative sense, granularity can be not a detail of a big picture, but an accumulation of smaller elements. I’m told that some computer treatment of large amounts of data is called granular when it gathers them together into more profitably handled little packets. When continuous (analogue) quantities are expressed as discrete (digital) sums, a grainy effect may become apparent.

But in ordinary speech granular has joined idiomatic phrases such as drill down or unpack to suggest analysis. I seem to remember that Mary Midgley, the excellent philosopher who died in October aged 99 (and should be on the £50 note), pointed out the fallacy of purporting to explain things by describing them at a microscopic level. With her, the arrogation by science of omnicompetence went against the grain.

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