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Word for the Wise September 28, 2006 Broadcast Topic: Parameter

An old friend passed along an old (to him) complaint about the supposed misuse of the word parameter. We weren抰 sure just how to characterize his bete noire, but it may be safe to say he抎 prefer parameter to stay within its . . . mathematical limits? perimeter? parameter? (来源:英语论坛 http://bbs.englishcn.com)

This is one of those situations where age matters. Our friend was old enough to notice when parameter moved from having a purely mathematical application (whose meaning one usage commentator described as "precise, [and..] which not one in ten of those who use it understands") and crossed into other technical fields (think science, accounting, and economics.)

So the meaning of parameter already had extended far beyond its specific mathematical application by the early seventies, when it began being used to refer to "any of a set of physical properties whose values determine the characteristics or behavior of something" (as when the parameters of the atmosphere are listed as temperature, pressure, and density). Then, as the lexical boundaries stretched still further and the meaning of parameter was broadened first to include characteristic, element, factor, and then limit and boundary, latter-day purists began objecting that parameter was being misused.

Sometimes it is, and sometimes parameter functions as a vague jargonistic word, but there is no doubt that parameter now has established itself with useful senses far beyond its abstruse mathematical meaning of an "arbitrary constant whose value characterizes a member of a system".

 
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