Language Corner

The term ‘bandwidth’ reaching full capacity in news reports

May 28, 2019

Sometimes, it doesn’t take long for a relatively new word to go from fad to cliché.

Such is the case with “bandwidth.”

A general search for “bandwidth” in Nexis shows thousands of hits in the past three months. Most of those referred to the technical “bandwidth”: “The numerical difference between the upper and lower frequencies of a band of electromagnetic radiation,” or “The amount of data that can be passed along a communications channel in a given period of time,” as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it.

But narrow the search to only news organizations in the United States, and eliminate business contexts, and you still get a couple of hundred citations. They include these:

In a news article about highway infrastructure: “We currently don’t have the bandwidth to handle all the traffic we have nowadays.”

In a news article about Cory Booker’s failed tech startup: “‘All of a sudden, it was pretty clear that he just didn’t have the bandwidth nor was it the right thing for him to be running for US Senate and also running a startup,’ he said.”

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In a news article about Michael Cohen’s relationship with President Trump: “When asked why Trump was reluctant to release his tax returns, Cohen suggested that Trump feared that if anyone had the expertise and bandwidth to go through his tax filings, they’d probably find something fishy.”

In an entertainment article about the new season of Chicago Fire: “Caring for the boy must have taken up all their mental bandwidth because no one seemed remotely suspicious of the sketchy guy claiming to be a firefighter who wandered into their common room minutes later.”

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Those four citations appeared in the same publication, but from different sources, and were chosen not to pick on the publication, but just to show how widespread the figurative “bandwidth” has become.

That kind of “bandwidth” has nothing to do with radio waves or communications channel, but the second American Heritage definition comes close: “Bandwidth” is being used figuratively to mean the capacity to handle something, whether it be a mental task, a physical task, or an emotion.

The original “bandwidth” popped up in the late 19th century, as electromagnetic studies gained traction. Back then, as the Merriam-Webster Words at Play blog notes, it applied to “a range within a band of wavelengths, frequencies, or energies.” Though applied first to light frequencies, it came to be used for radio, television, and internet “bandwidths” as well. With the growth of the internet, “bandwidth” referred more to capacity than to range.

As M-W noted, “Once bandwidth had broadened to include ‘data capacity’ in its meanings, it took not much time at all for data-driven types to begin using it to describe their own capacity (or lack thereof) for doing things.”

For some words, nonliteral uses are quickly adopted, while others take longer to gain figurative senses. And while the frequency of “bandwidth” as a figurative seems on the rise, many dictionaries have yet to catch up.

For example, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one favored by the Associated Press and many news organizations, has no figurative definition for “bandwidth,” only “the range of frequencies within a band” and “the rate at which information can be transmitted along a communications line, to a device, etc.”

The AP Stylebook itself, though, warns against “bandwidth” in its humorous “cliches, jargon” entry, under “Business”: “Without saying the P-word by name, he termed it a wake-up call for all bucket owners to grow their bandwidth and broaden their portfolios to avoid worst-case scenarios that could be toxic for the more upscale segments.” (Emphasis added.)

The Oxford English Dictionary has no separate entry for “bandwidth,” and lists it under the main headword for “band.”

Even different versions of the same dictionary might not be sharing “bandwidth.” Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged dictionary has no figurative meaning for “bandwidth.” But look in the free version of M-W, based on the Collegiate 11th edition, and see definition No. 3: “The emotional or mental capacity necessary to do or consider something.”

That definition was added in March 2018. And here it is already a cliché.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.