Academic decisions

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Murray Smith writes:

Friday afternoon in the car I heard a radio news report about the closing of an art gallery on Boston's tony Newbury Street.  The reporter had interviewed the gallery owner and learned that due to economic conditions gallery sales had been down forty percent the last two years.  Now the landlord was imposing a thirty percent rent increase, and the owner was throwing in the towel.  The reporter concluded, "The decision was academic; she had to do it."  The intonational profile showed that the second clause was a gloss on the first.  I was surprised, not having heard this use of "academic" before.  I have always understood "academic" in this sort of context to mean something like "without significant consequences".

Murray's understanding corresponds to the OED's sense 5 of academic, glossed as "Not leading to a decision; unpractical; strictly theoretical or formal. Now also in weakened sense: of no consequence, irrelevant." This sense itself presumably developed out of an implicit opposition between theoretical (= academic) and practical questions, whereby a discussion or decision that is "purely academic" is one that is purely a matter of abstract theory, with no immediate implications in practice — say because there are no relevant cases under consideration, or because the participants have no power to implement any decisions.

This sense appears to date from the 19th century: the OED's first citations for sense 5. are these, of which only the third strikes me as clearly an instance to Murry's common modern "without significant consequences" sense:

1812 Monthly Rev. 69 492   His erudition must be worked into the edifice, not exhibited in lumpish disconnection. He must preserve the epic form, without sliding into academic discussion.

1844 J. Keble Lect. on Poetry I. xvi. 315,   I certainly hope you will not suppose that this is merely a lifeless and academic discussion. It is, believe me, of the greatest importance that the limits of imitation should be carefully and judiciously laid down.

1886 Times 31 Mar. 7/2   This discussion partook of an academic character, for it was well understood that, whatever the result of the discussions might be, no practical step would be taken in the present Parliament.

1897 D. G. Hogarth Philip & Alexander of Macedon i. 85   Since the references‥to the Olynthian war are in the last degree meagre and vague, and those to Philip merely general, the Olynthiacs would possess for the historian only an academic interest.

Murray continues:

When I got home, I realized I had an opportunity for a breakfast experiment, even though it was mid-afternoon.  Among the first baker's dozen hits on "decision was academic" in Google Books, three fit the unfamiliar usage.

In The Carrier, Holden Scott writes:  "At the end of a similar hallway was a starirwell, lit by fluorescent strips of light.  He knew by instinct that this was the right direction. … He reached the stairwell, shutting the glass door behind him.  Cement steps led up and down, and again the decision was academic."  Here, the decision apparently has important consequences, but the decider knows what to do without reflection.

In Sink the Shigure, R. Cameron Cooke writes:  "As he stuffed the fourth stack of bills into his shirt, a deterring thought suddenly came to mind.  What if the ship wasn't sinking, after all?  Someone would later discover that the money was missing. … Men were shouting.  Someone was coming this way.  His decision was academic now.  In a matter of seconds, he removed every stack of bills from his shirt, crammed them all into the aluminum box, and shoved the box back into the safe."

The third example shows, I think, how the use of "academic" could have slid over from "without consequences" to "automatic" or "obvious".  In Howard William's book, A Year in the Life of Peartree House B&B, he writes:  "Indeed, that night we had several others seeking accommodation — and for the first time I had my doubts about the desirability of having some people in the house, but the decision was academic as we were already full."

I agree with Murray in finding it odd to describe an obvious decision of significant practical import as "academic". But if the core meaning of this sense involves a question where reasoning or discussion has no practical consequence, then such cases ought logically to be included. A discussion or deliberation might be "academic" because there's no relevant case in view, because those discussing or deliberating have no power or no intent to influence the outcome — or because the answer is so strongly determined by current circumstances that no amount of deliberation could affect it.

The results of Murray's experiment still surprise me, as they surprised him. It would be interesting to look at the history of academic = "theoretical rather than practical". There are several different issues here: among them are the origins and popularity of the underlying theory v. practice opposition; the use of the word academic in this connection; and the distribution of the various reasons for impracticality.  Some day, when we've got better standards for stable distinctions among word senses, better sense-disambiguating software, and better sense-tagged historical text collections, such experiments will be easier.

Will these experiments still be purely academic? In some cases; but in fact, legal decisions of considerable practical weight often hinge on the question of how particular words or phrases were used at a particular point in time, and what writers and readers would then have taken them to mean in a particular context. And several technologies of increasing importance depend on at-least-approximate answers to related questions about current usage.


  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    I wonder if you're examining the wrong word. I too find it more natural to say that the discussion, deliberation, debate is academic. Decision seems at first to be the product of a discussion, deliberation, debate. But is this necessarily so?

    Etymology aside, the act of deciding or making a decision has a deliberative quality, at least to me. If I said, "Today I will decide whether to marry Martha or George," you would probably imagine me going through a deliberative process. Or if I referred to something as a "tough decision," you would also understand that the decision itself was a deliberative process that caused me some emotional strain.

    Part of the challenge here is that (pace George W.) "deciding" as gerund sounds unidiomatic. "The deciding was academic. Martha was dead." Clearly this usage suggests a deliberative process more than the result of a deliberation. But we don't use it. At least, I don't recall it being used. Might this "gap" make "decision" a kind of proxy?

  2. Bob Lieblich said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 10:09 am

    We lawyers have "moot." And we use it pretty much the same way, to mean "theoretical rather than practical." One classic example is a suit to prevent the destruction of a historic building. If the buliding was demolished before the defendant was served, the case is moot, no matter how significant the consequences.

  3. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 10:30 am

    @Bob Lieblich: But "moot," in modern legal usage, generally covers a particular category of theoretical questions: those where, as in your example, there was once a live controversy between the parties but is no longer. A question, say, that is not yet a live controversy, but might become one in the future, is also seen as theoretical-not-practical, but it gets pigeonholed into a different legal box.

  4. Jesse Hochstadt said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    I wonder if the sonic similarity of "academic" to "automatic" (which word Murray Smith in fact mentions) played some role in the semantic slippage here.

  5. Craig said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    I think my assessment of the question is sort of along the same lines as Spell Me Jeff's. My gut instinct is that in these contexts, it's the word 'decision' that's being used in a slightly different sense, or rather that the entire statement has a meaning that is more than the literal combination of the meaning of its elements.

    I read the phrase "the decision was academic" as a kind of periphrasis for "calling what came next a 'decision' would be purely academic." So in the quoted example, the gallery owner technically had a choice about whether to keep going or close up shop, but, given the pressures she faced, it would be academic (i.e. adhering overly strictly to the technical definition of the word) to call this choice a 'decision'.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 10:59 am

    In Murray's third and fourth examples, I suspect "academic" has more or less its traditional meaning if you understand what decision is being talked about. The decision to steal the money is now seen to have been academic because the character has to put it back, and the decision of whether or not having guests is desirable is academic because the character has guests. That leaves his first and second examples, where I read "decision" as "deliberation"— which means I agree with MYL and Spell Me Jeff, but not with Craig, I think.

  7. mollymooly said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    I think BrE often uses "academic" where AmE uses "moot". separatedbyacommonlanguage has a post on "moot". Would AmE have "moot" in this Guardian article…:

    A 0-0 draw between the host nation and Algeria meant Mali's 3-1 win in Group A's other match was rendered academic.


    Drifting over similar semantic space: Usage mavens decry the (putative?) extension of "Hobson's choice" from "no choice" to "a choice between equally unpleasant options".

  8. Ø said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

    In baseball such a game is sometimes said to be "meaningless".

  9. Matt Weber said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    I'm guessing this is a bit of drift from having heard "the distinction was academic" a few times. At least that's a somewhat fixed phrase I'm familiar with.

  10. HP said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

    My first impression is that there's some confusion with "elementary," as in "Elementary, my dear Watson." I.e., "The conclusion is obvious and unavoidable."

    The confusion stems from elementary almost never being used in the cod-Sherlockian sense these days, but instead used almost exclusively to refer to "elementary school."

    Elementary (school) –> scholastic –> academic.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    New York state courts (and perhaps others, although N.Y. is where I've seen it) often say that appeals or other applications for relief are "dismissed as academic" when more common U.S. legal usage would be to say "dismissed as moot."

  12. ENKI-2 said,

    March 5, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

    @HP I'd be inclined to agree with you, only that phrase was never used in a Sherlock Holmes book (I think it first appeared in one of the Basil Rathbone films, though I could be wrong). Are there clear examples of the Holmesian usage of 'academic' prior to the first Holmesian usage of 'elementary' (and more importantly — was this use of 'elementary' ever common enough outside of a culturally-understood reference to Sherlock Holmes that a like usage of 'academic' could spawn off of it prior to its subsequent re-popularization as a catch-phrase)?

  13. nicholas said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 2:59 am

    "academic" = "no-brainer"?

  14. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 8:30 am

    "academic" is a possibly subset of "no-brainer." A choice can be a "no-brainer" for a lot of reasons. Like for most of us, collecting lottery winnings is a no-brainer. But that's not academic because you still have the choice. You can always turn the money down, but only a fool would do so.

    A question is academic when the choice does not exist — most typically when a choice used to exist, but no longer exists. Like the choice between painting your office blue or green becomes academic when the office building burns down — or because the building manager permits green only. Talk about the merits of blue all you want, you're still going to paint it green. Maybe this is also a species of no-brainer.

  15. Mr Punch said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    I was once told (by a professor) that every significant decision, except those involving moral issues, is taken in the absence of sufficient information. In other words, if the answer is obvious, the decision process is, well, academic.

  16. Brett said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    @ENKI-2: The Holmes quote is actually from William Gillette's portrayal of the character.

  17. Dan Hemmens said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    I think I agree with Jerry Friedman and Spell-Me-Jeff, that the issue here is that "the decision is academic" seems to be being used here to mean something like "the decision is really no decision at all" – possibly with the implication that whatever arguments might have supported the alternative decision are academic because it cannot be made.

    I think this issue might come down to what you might call a sliding scale of academic-ness. Consider a scenario in which you must decide between a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. You might begin:

    "That afternoon, I was asked to choose between a ham sandwich and a cheese sandwich, but the decision was academic because …"

    You might conclude "… I would not have time to eat either of them." This would seem to fit the common of-no-consequence meaning very closely.

    Alternatively you might conclude "… the cheese sandwich proved to be unavailable." This is slightly more ambiguous, but would imply (to me) that the absence of a genuine cheese option meant that the question of which sandwich you *would* have chosen was a purely academic one.

    Even more ambiguously, you might conclude "… I am very allergic to cheese." This seems wrong to me, but I could see that somebody might use it to imply that the question of your preference is rendered academic by the fact of your allergy.

    Finally, you might conclude "… I have never liked cheese." This, I think, comes closest to "academic meaning obvious" but I don't think it closely fits the examples cited (most of which seem to involve one of two otherwise similar options being rendered unpalatable by some external circumstance).

    Although, as ever, I say this as somebody with zero knowledge of linguistics.

  18. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

    I've read that the Holmes phrase was never used by Gillette, but first appeared in an Orson Welles radio adaptation of Gillette's play.

  19. Brett said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

    @Ralph Hickok: According to Wikipedia, Gillette's version was: "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow," Assuming this is correct, it's then a matter of whether one thinks that counts as coining the phrase. I can't remember how the tour guides at Gillette Castle phrase their attribution of the quote to Gillette, exactly.

  20. Sparky said,

    March 6, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

    Person misuses word.

    Quick, call the Internet!!!

  21. ttch said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 1:12 am

    At a data analysis company I used to work for, one of the senior mathematicians complained that he had been lured there with the assertion that it was an "academic environment".

    I told him that he had misunderstood. The real claim was that the environment was academic.

  22. Dan Hemmens said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 4:10 am

    Person misuses word.

    Quick, call the Internet!!!

    [(myl) You mistake curiosity for censure. Excoriating "misuse" is not the only reason to investigate and discuss a usage that some find surprising.]

    I think the question here is whether this *does* constitute misuse, or merely legitimate non-standard use.

    As outlined above, I actually feel the issue here is not so much the use of "academic" as the issue of whether a decision is or is not rendered academic by a given set of circumstances (see "the decision was academic because I could choose neither" versus "the decision was academic because I could only choose one" versus "the decision was academic because some external circumstances rendered one choice vastly superior.")

  23. Dan Hemmens said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    [(myl) You mistake curiosity for censure. Excoriating "misuse" is not the only reason to investigate and discuss a usage that some find surprising.]

    I think that reply was directed at the person I was quoting, rather than at me.

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