The Grammarphobia Blog

Bandwidth to spare

Q: I don’t have a question, but I thought you might like to see this novel usage of the word “bandwidth” in an article about Governor Spitzer’s plans to introduce a gay-marriage bill in New York: “That would leave Mr. Spitzer with little political bandwidth that would allow him to build support for another controversial bill.”

A: Thanks for “bandwidth” — my husband spotted the usage, too, and I’m saving it to mention on a future WNYC broadcast. He suspects, as do I, that this one will be just too irresistible to the language trendies and that it will be around for a while.

The first published citation for “bandwidth” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1930, when the word referred to the interval separating the limits of a band of electromagnetic frequencies or wave lengths.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defined it pretty much the same way until the latest edition (the fourth), which added this additional definition: “The amount of data that can be passed along a communications channel in a given period of time.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if the next American Heritage edition takes the word one step further and uses it metaphorically as a synonym for “influence” or “clout” (political, financial, romantic, and so on).

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