How do you render a word meaningless? One good way is to use it repeatedly in such a way that it ends up meaning nothing.
That is the current fate of the word ‘significant’, which has been so over-used that it now means ‘insignificant’. That’s some achievement, isn’t it – to render meaningless a word that means ‘meaningful’.
Here are some examples:
- A senior police officer says there will be “significant arrests” of those involved in a riot in a British city.
- A youth-justice organisation “reveals significant achievements and improvements in the youth justice system over the last year”.
- The US Department of Education issues a list of “significant guidance documents” – as distinct from a list of “insignificant guidance documents”.
- Police report a “significant” drop in crime. By how much, do you think? 4.6%? 9.9% 15% 22%. As it happens, 8.3%.
- The BBC announces a “significant change” to its online news offering.
- A police officer is killed in Ottawa. The president of the Canadian Police Association says: “This is going to be a significant, significant loss.” (More precisely, he also said: “His death will have a profound effect on the force.”)
- Engineers make “significant progress” towards putting a new cap on BP’s leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.
- NASA discovers a “significant amount” of water on the moon. How much would that be? Fortunately, the scientist announcing the discovery offered a significant illustration, holding up several white plastic containers and adding: “about a dozen, two-gallon bucketfuls”.
What does the damn word mean?
Now, according to the Oxford Dictionaries online, ‘significant’ means (in two senses):
“1 sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy …
“2 having a particular meaning …”
If you announce something, then, it is presumably “sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention”, so you hardly need to say it is “significant”.
It’s almost automatic to say or write ‘significant’ now to save us from the effort of being more exact. Small, very small, minor, big, major, huge? Damn it, significant will do.
What a relief it is to find the chief executive of Anglo Irish Bank acknowledging that the Irish government’s bailout for his bank involves, not a “significant”, but a “staggering amount of money” (Irish Times report, 1 April 2010). He correctly realised that corporate euphemistic generality and vagueness would not suffice.
‘Significant’ does, of course, have an exact meaning in statistics (look it up if you wish). And, according to my calculations, in non-statistical texts the word is used in an insignificant (that is, meaningless) way in 87.56% of cases.
So, next time you’re about to use the word ‘significant’, stop for a second and do something significant for the health of the language: use a different word.