Q: I was reading a business article in the New York Times about Berkshire-Hathaway’s policy of trusting managers rather than relying on a safety net of lawyers and compliance officers. At one point, the writer asks, “So is Berkshire’s approach scalable?” What on earth does “scalable” mean here?
A: We can see why you’re confused. Standard dictionaries generally define “scalable” as “climbable” or “expandable.” It can also mean “measurable” or “resizable” or “used on a large scale” or “used by many people.”
None of those definitions seem right here. For example, it’s already used on a large scale and by many people at Berkshire-Hathaway. The writer of that Times article is apparently using “scalable” to mean usable by other companies.
The word “scalable” first showed up in the 1500s in the climbable sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from Sir Thomas North’s 1579-80 translation of Plutarch’s Life of Aratus: “Without the wall the height was not so great, but that it was easily scalable with ladders.”
Although the OED describes the climbable sense of “scalable” as rare, that’s the primary meaning given in most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked.
In the 20th century, Oxford says, the word “scalable” took on a new meaning: “able to be measured or graded according to a scale.”
The dictionary’s first example of this sense is from a 1936 issue of the journal Psychological Monographs: “A few seem common enough to be regarded as comparable from one individual to another. These might be called common or scalable traits.”
In the 1970s, the OED says, the word “scalable” took on yet another sense: “able to be changed in scale.”
The dictionary describes this sense as rare and lists only one citation, from a 1977 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts: “Such lasers are scaleable since large volumes could be pumped uniformly.”
The OED doesn’t have any other senses of “scalable,” but Oxford Dictionaries online includes these additional definitions:
● “Able to be changed in size or scale: scalable fonts.”
● “Able to be used or produced in a range of capabilities: it is scalable across a range of systems.”
● “Able to be measured or graded according to a scale.”
The Collins English Dictionary says the term may also refer to a computer network that can “be expanded to cope with increased use.”
The Macmillan Dictionary online says it refers to computer systems, software, or technologies that “continue to work well when they are used on a large scale or by many people.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers this definition: “capable of being easily expanded or upgraded on demand: a scalable computer network.”
A bit of googling finds the word used in many other senses, but we’ll stop here. Our heads are spinning.
With so many meanings, “scalable” is becoming meaningless, especially to an everyday reader unfamiliar with its jargony senses. Perhaps it’s time for the mainstream news media to give “scalable” a rest.