By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

There's that word again: granularity.

It's a mouthful of a term used by guys like Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq; retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey; and White House press secretary Tony Snow.

Responding recently to a question about potential sectarian violence in Iraq if U.S. forces withdraw, Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "It's hard from this distance . . . to get a real feel, or the real granularity of what's going on."

On "NBC Nightly News," McCaffrey said that sending more troops on a mission to Iraq "to get down to detailed granularity to fight a counterinsurgency battle in a city of 6 million Arabs who are murdering each other . . . is a fool's errand."

And talking about the inability to definitively link Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Snow said in an autumnal news conference, "We just don't have that kind of granularity in terms of the relationship."

Lately, people have been invoking the word to mean specificity. Certain things, such as the administration's vision for the future of Iraq, lack granularity. Newlyweds' dreams, psychic-network predictions and late-night kitchen-table get-rich-quick schemes also suffer from granularity deprivation.

Mike Mills, writing in Congressional Quarterly about the U.S. health care system's collection of personal medical information, notes that "sometimes the newer standard appears to take granularity to an extreme."

So, specifically, what exactly are we talking about?

"When I wrote that particular column," Mills says in an e-mail, "I remember hesitating before using the word, knowing at least subconsciously that it has now become jargon for 'detail.' "

In other words, "granularity" is a popular word for the "nitty-gritty." But it's not so nitty, not quite as gritty. It's about texture. Concreteness.

The word has migrated from science to business and now to politics and popular parlance. Mills, a journalist who spent several years in the overdrive world of dot-com commerce, says that "its modern origin as a technical term comes from the digital realm of computer graphics -- pixels."

The greater the number of pixels in an image, he points out, the greater the granularity, or clarity. The contemporary "use of this word seems to signal that the digital convergence has now crept into the human mind -- which techies call 'wetware.' "

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company