/AC-shun-ə-bəl/. adjective. Something that can be used as the ground for legal action. More generally, something that can be acted upon or used as the basis for taking action.
If I’d heard the term “actionable science” before learning it was part of today’s show, I probably repressed the memory along with other traumatic language experiences. I do remember once being part of a “working group”—my job involves plenty of buzzword bingo—and listening in awe as our leaders steered our rickety ship away from the linguistic Scylla of titling a section of our agenda “action items” right into the maw of the Charybdis of “actionable items,” a dubious decision recorded for posterity in the black box of a Google doc.
But at the end of the day, I don’t want to be out of the loop, so let’s synergistically circle back at this point in time to think outside the box and drill down past the pain point to instantiate a takeaway from this linguistic low-hanging fruit and empower my stakeholders by touching base about this whole actionable thing.
Actionable is not intrinsically offensive. It might sound like a new buzzword in some contexts, but as a legal term for something that provides cause for a legal action or a lawsuit, actionable dates back to at least 1601, when William Lambarde, in Archeion, a book about the English judiciary, wrote of the unfairness that a “good and serviceable Judge, Justice, or Officer” had to put up with being “baited and bitten by libel and slander” because the speech wasn’t “actionable“. And while I’ve come to expect lawyerly language to be overwrought in its “client-focused” efforts to “promulgate” the law, I have to admit the word makes sense in this context.
But there’s some cranky wisdom in the words of H. W. Fowler, who noted that the suffix -able is deeply ambiguous. Consider the word reasonable, which was once a new word and which could come from either the verb or noun reason. Reasonable could then mean that “that can be reasoned out, or that can [itself] reason, or that can be reasoned with, or that has reason, or that listens to reason, or that is consistent with reason.” Following that line of reasoning, is this newer idea of actionable in the phrase actionable science the kind of science that can be used to take action or science that itself can be acted on or science that can be used for legal actions against scientists (no small consideration given the weirded, tesseract inside a tesseract that best describes the current nether-worldly intersection of politics and science)?
Still, context is often queen, and I suspect all but the most lawyerly among us are unlikely to mistake one kind of actionable science for the other. But…not to go all Andy Rooney on you, and remaining well aware that the linguistic heart wants what it wants, the first world word problem I have with actionable science is that I can’t come up with a single reason why actionable is better than less marble-mouthed alternatives like practical, applied, pragmatic, productive or concrete. Or how about simply “useful?”
My usual trawl to see how the word is being used in this new sense yielded a few gems in books like Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day (advice I wish the author of Actionable Gamification had thought to take before committing crimes of composition like QUOTE “Ten years of Gamification study and implementations result in a fairly robust framework that can become actionable towards driving better motivation and metrics” UNQUOTE) but otherwise actionable remains thankfully limited mostly to its legal sense, even among the most tin-eared authors of pot-boilers…and I hope it stays that way!
Of course all of this is ultimately just my way of rationalizing my own preferences. In the play-within-a-play that is life, some words and phrases please my ears and others pour into them like a poison. And as a friend reminded me recently, the dose makes the poison, so I’ll be reasonable and stop now, leaving the debate of actionable and, I guess, un-actionable science to the Ig Nobel award committee, recognizing research into matters like “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”