Q: Have you ever discussed the awful overuse of “in terms of” in current everyday parlance?
A: You’re right that the phrase “in terms of” is getting quite a workout these days.
The expression was little used in the 19th century, as a search with Google’s Ngram viewer shows. But it began rising steadily around 1910 and arrived at a sharp peak in 1980. Since then it has fallen slightly and leveled off, but it remains at a relatively high frequency of usage.
A comparison chart shows that “in terms of” is now clearly more popular than its usual synonyms, listed here in order of frequency: “regarding,” “concerning,” “in relation to,” “with respect to,” “as far as,” and “with regard to.”
The chart shows that “in terms of” was the least popular a century ago, but now it’s the favorite. Why? We can’t say. Perhaps it strikes people as more scholarly or scientific than the alternatives.
In fact, “in terms of” had scholarly beginnings. It was first recorded in the early 18th century as a mathematical expression meaning “by means of or with reference to specified variables or quantities,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED’s earliest written use is from a technical dictionary, John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum (1704): “Square number A mix’d Number … whose Fractional Part is exprest in Terms of a Vulgar Fraction.”
These examples from the next three centuries more clearly illustrate the expression’s technical meaning:
“The nearest distance of the orbits of Venus and the earth was concluded in terms of the earth’s diameter” (Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects, 1866, by John Frederick William Herschel).
“Solve the given equation for y in terms of x” (College Mathematics, 2nd ed., 1951, by William Whitfield Elliott and Edward Roy Cecil Miles).
“Write down an expression, in terms of x, for the amount Dan received” (Cambridge O Level Mathematics, 2012, by Audrey Simpson).
The nontechnical meaning of “in terms of” emerged in the early 19th century. It’s defined in the OED as “by means of or in reference to (a particular concept); in the mode of expression or thought belonging to (a subject or category); (loosely) on the basis of; in relation to; as regards.”
The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrase used in this sense is from a work by the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham: “Contradictoriness … manifested, in terms of a certain degree of strength, towards some proposition or propositions, that have been advanced by some one else” (The Elements of the Art of Packing, as Applied to Special Juries, 1821).
These later examples show how the usage has evolved:
“Most persons, on being asked in what sort of terms they imagine words, will say ‘in terms of hearing’ ” (The Principles of Psychology, 1890, by William James).
“System design is discussed here in terms of fact finding, developing specifications, meeting specifications, and matching equipment with the system” (Automatic Data-Processing Systems, 1960, by Robert Henry Gregory and Richard L. Van Horn).
“We need to recognise metropolitan and CBD business remain the major engine of growth in terms of new employment” (Australian Financial Review, May 25, 2000).
The phrase as we know it today, the dictionary says, is sometimes influenced by a use of the plural “terms” in a sense that dates from the late 14th century: “words or expressions collectively (usually of a specified kind); manner of expression, way of speaking; language. Chiefly preceded by in.”
Familiar expressions using this sense of “terms” include “in general terms,” “in layman’s terms,” “in the strongest terms,” and “in no uncertain terms.”
So “in terms of,” the OED says, sometimes comes close to meaning “in the language or terminology of.”