Language Corner

The meaning behind Scaramucci’s favorite word

July 24, 2017
Photo by World Economic Forum via Flickr

In one of his first public appearances as the new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci warned leakers in the Trump administration. “Tomorrow I’m going to have a staff meeting,” he said on the CBS program Face the Nation. “And it’s going to be a very binary thing.…If they want to stay on the staff, they’re going to stop leaking.” A few seconds later, he said, “But if you’re going to keep leaking, I’m going to fire everybody. It’s just very binary.”

In context, the word “binary” seems clear: Don’t leak and you can keep your job, or leak and lose it. But it’s also an uncommon use of “binary,” and it seems to reflect Scaramucci’s background in the financial world.

The word “binary” is associated with pairs, and usually appears in a more familiar contexts. Computing is based on a “binary system,” with two “binary digits,” 0 and 1. (“Binary” is also embedded in the computer term “bit,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “A unit of information derived from a choice between two equally probable alternatives or ‘events.’” ) That usage of “binary” traces only to the mid-20th century, according to the OED, though the concept of “binary arithmetic” was invented in 1679 by a German mathematician and philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz. Or maybe the Chinese invented it. (Think of “binary” as being base 2 to our normal base 10. And just for the fun, listen to Tom Lehrer’s New Math to better understand the concept of “base.”)

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More recently, “binary” has been applied to gender, with the traditional view being that biological sex is binary, only male or female. Many people, though, identify themselves as “nonbinary,” meaning they don’t think of themselves as either male or female, or as only male or female, and the concept of the “gender binary” is often questioned.

Most “binaries” appear in scientific contexts: There are “binary stars,” two suns that revolve around each other or around a common center; “binary compounds,” comprising two elements; and “binary colors,” made up of two primary colors, among others. A “binary measure” in music has two beats to the bar.

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The word “binary” itself comes from the Latin word for “two together,” and first appeared in English in the mid-15th century to describe a “combination of two things; a couple, pair, ‘two’; duality,” the OED says. If you think about it, the first “binary system” was Noah’s, loading the animals on the Ark “two by two.”

But Scaramucci described a choice—you’re in or you’re out—not a pair. “Binary” in that form is equivalent to yes/no, in/out, or off/on. And that use of “binary” is more common in the hedge fund world, where Scaramucci owned SkyBridge Capital, which he has been trying to sell to a Chinese conglomerate. Many hedge funds sell “binary options,” in which an investor “must essentially only guess whether something specific will or will not happen,” as Investopedia says, such as whether a stock will be at or above a certain price on a certain date. If the stock hits the target, the investor gets paid. If not, the investor loses the capital. It’s sometimes called an “all or none” option, and has come under attack as being open to fraud.

Scaramucci was not the first Trump administration official to use “binary” in that “all or none” sense. Less than a month ago, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a briefing: “That binary choice between pro-economy and pro-environment that has perpetuated—or, I should say, been perpetuated by the Obama administration has set up a false argument. The fact is, we can do good for both—and we will.”

A “binary choice” to mean “all or none” has been in use since at least 1985, when an aide to Ronald Reagan discussed “a binary choice between tax reform and no tax reform.” It is usually categorized as a negative thing, a stark choice with no wiggle room, with one decision good and one decision bad.

As always, it’s important for writers—and communicators—to be sure the context gives the audience no choice but to understand what’s meant.

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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.