Monday 7 December 2009

Gambits, Blueprints and Quantum Leaps

Ministers and regulators bought the gambit hook, line and sinker.
   - Simon Jenkins in The Guardian

This is, I think, a rare, almost extinct specimen of the correct use of the word gambit. It can't last because gambit is dead, it has fallen into the terrible linguistic oubliette of being a technical term that nobody knows about. A word cannot serve two masters: conversation and precision.

A gambit, technically speaking, is a series of opening moves in chess in which a piece is sacrificed for the sake of a positional advantage. Opening gambits are therefore tautologous. Saying "Nice weather we've been having lately" is not a conversational gambit, unless you are trying to trick a meteorologist. A gambit, technically, must have some sense of either deception or sacrifice. Otherwise it's just... well it isn't anything. It's a start.

But of course 99% of the population don't know that, so unless you're actually chatting to Kasparov it's utterly Quixotic to use gambit in its technical sense. Mr Jenkins, though correct, had to add the words "bought" and "hook, line and sinker" to frame the meaning. If, after falling out with someone, I call them up and admit that I partly wrong in the hope that they would do the same, I could call that a conversational gambit, but few readers would know the implications of the word unless I explained them.

So you're a fool if you think you can still use gambit correctly, but you will be thought a fool by some if you use it incorrectly.

The word is dead. Chess journalists, I suppose, can continue to use it. But for the rest of us gambit has spent two long splitting: retaining a technical meaning whilst wandering the mean streets of verbiage.

The same probably goes for a quantum leap. A quantum leap is a sudden movement, a sort of magical shift, but it is terribly, terribly, terribly tiny. In fact, it is the smallest shift possible in nature, which is why there is no between. I know that quantum physicists are not a large part of anyone's coterie, but why display your ignorance to the fury of pedants like a babooness in heat madly presenting her swollen rump to the mercy of the pack?

Oh, and a blueprint is not a preliminary sketch, it is the final plan delivered to the factory.

Is this who you want to be?


  1. Re: quantum leap, you don't mention the impact of the popular television series (1989-1993). I for one can never hear the phrase without thinking of Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell hurtling through space to the sound of that very memorable theme tune. Apparently the vernacular usage of "quantum leap" to mean a "step change" (which to my mind is a much more annoying phrase) dates back to the 1950s and is quite widely accepted.

  2. I agree that "step change" is verbal filth, but I can't put my finger on why (it's perfectly good maths).

  3. Contrariwise, people 'correcting' 'quantum leap' is one of my linguistic pet peeves! Used properly, 'quantum leap' refers to going directly from Point A to Point C, without going through Point B. Usually, the distance between Points A and C is greater than that between Points A and B, so the term is often interpreted as 'traveling a great distance from Point A to Point C', and it is this mistaken interpretation which people criticize.

  4. The point is, I believe, that there is no point B. Children are an example of a quantum phenomenon: you have one, then you have two without ever having anything in between. The point of quantum theory is that at the smallest scale everything works like this, increasing or decreasing in fixed quanta (often Planck's constant).

    So going from having one baby to having two is, technically, a quantum leap. It can only be so because you could not conceivably have moved a shorter distance (in childbearing).

  5. By "technically", do you mean "used as a technical chess term"? Because using a word in a sense other than its technical sense does not necessarily make it incorrect. This use of gambit seems to simply be a figurative extension.

  6. My point is that one usually cannot tell whether the usage is technical or figurative, which means that the is permanently open to misinterpretation, rendering it useless.

    In this is differs from, say, grouse for complaint or bird where the context makes the meaning clear. That's why I started with a technical usage that the writer had to explain and then moved onto conversational uses that were ambiguous.

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  8. I don't know, all these examples of "gambit" used in a general sense seem clear to me.

    The fact that people complain about misuses of "gambit" demonstrates to me that they have no trouble telling whether the usage is technical or figurative.