Jargonbuster takes aim at "sub optimal"

The World Today Published 3 February 2012 Updated 7 December 2018 1 minute READ

Each year lexicographers amuse themselves by selecting a word or phrase that is emblematic of the previous twelve months.

Oxford Dictionaries opted for a very British “squeezed middle”, a passive companion to “occupy” chosen by the American Dialect Society. Germany selected “stresstest”, perhaps in pride at the resilience of its banks. France’s choice was more outward-looking: “dégage” (clear off). As in ‘Mubarak: dégage!’

Japan’s word was “kizuna” (bonds or connections between people), a concept which helped the country overcome its natural disasters.

Public policy debate is full of verbal tics. Politicians and pundits reach for bits of jargon that have tumbled down from the heights of academia, with the terms losing their meaning and ending up as fig leaves to cover banal arguments or unpleasant truths.

The World Today favours clarity over jargon. We will track such abuses of language in current affairs and readers are welcome to submit examples. To start the ball rolling, we offer “sub optimal”.

Handed down from mathematics via economics and game theory, “sub optimal” has become a euphemism for anything the speaker or writer considers but cannot say is unsatisfactory or even hopeless. So, for example, the state of the eurozone is sub optimal, or that of the Middle East peace process, or that of the candidate field for the Republican Party presidential nomination.

Strictly speaking, a situation is sub optimal if an improvement would come at no “loss” to any party involved. Does this ever happen in a political context? Few political situations are sub optimal. There is usually a loser, even if there is an overall gain. So let’s drop sub optimal from the political lexicon.