Operationalise with care

An early operation - homeopaths note: medical treatment like this can often seem more credible if you wear a funnel or a book on your head, or ask a nearby spiritual person to look concerned

I’ve just heard a politician state that his country was ready to “operationalise” a strategy, which obviously has consequences. Quite apart from anything else, a civil servant now has to draw up an operationalisation plan.

If civil servants are paid by the syllable, I can see the point in this. Otherwise, I’d like to helpfully point out – in the interests of public sector efficiency – that an operationalisation plan can also be described as “a plan”.

How far can we push this polysyllabilisationism? A bit further, it seems, but we’ll get to that. Operationalise is an excellent example of word obesity. It’s the vocab equivalent of stuffing a sock in your Y-fronts or padding your bra.

You can just keep stretching a word like “operate”. I took this word as a base to see how well we’re doing at stuffing it with extra syllables. Not surprisingly, useful extensions like operation and operational have more or less exactly the same long-term relative frequency, though operational is growing, maybe because it sounds macho:

Not much to see there. But let’s add the politician’s word that started all this: operationalise. To catch all the examples, I spelt it using both the -ise and -ize forms. This extension is getting much more popular. I’m guessing it is crowding out “put into operation”, which doesn’t make you sound important at all.

Just out of interest, I wondered if anyone had the nerve to commit a word like operationalisation to print and, I kid you not, there almost 400 examples of it in 2009 alone:

It’s becoming more popular, but not gaining in popularity as fast as operationalise. I think that’s for two reasons:

1. From the examples I could be bothered to read, there’s just no point to it; which is a disadvantage even for clever-sounding words

2. It’s just as hard to type as it is to say

Two good reasons to stop right here, but you know I can’t do that. On 29 October 2009, in the transcript of a Zygo Corporation earnings conference call, the world was introduced to the first ever recorded example of the word operationalizational in a business context. Nine syllables! I can’t help feeling that future historians will date some kind of decline from this moment, lamenting that a once great culture choked to death by gorging itself on its own syllables.

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