To at least some people’s ears, this word surely does not satisfy. What you see is a common English word (satisfying) with just a slight addition making it a blend with another word (sufficing) – like mocktail (a word that I confess pulls my nose hairs). But this has the added bitterness of business-speak, and of seeming to try to sound clever or superior by dint of a slight modification while not necessarily succeeding, at least in the utterance of its average user.

It’s not that the guy who invented this word was soft-headed. Herbert Simon was one of the leading American social scientists of the 20th century, a Nobel prizewinner, a Turing Award winner, a seminal figure in artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and economics (among other fields). He knew how people really do things: markets don’t work with perfectly rational consumers making fully informed decisions, for instance; the cost of getting full information and the effort required to attain perfect results often outweigh the perceptible increase in benefit over a less costly, easier result that is close enough. And choices are often made by groups of individuals with conflicting desires and positions, and simply coming to an agreement is often quite enough, never mind coming to the best possible agreement. So people do what is sufficient to satisfy. Anyone who has worked in the world of business – or, for that matter, just about anyone anywhere who has done anything, really – knows this very well. “That’s good enough – move on,” and the great mantra, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Satisfice.

And no doubt the association of this word with business buzzspeak is a strong factor in its distastefulness to those who dislike it. I think the sound of it is also a problem. To start with, it sounds a bit like a razor doing something I wish it wouldn’t to some usable part of my anatomy. It’s a real hiss festival, and those three i-dots are sort of like one’s hairs standing up at the sound. But beyond that, there’s something satisfying about the word satisfying – that big, wide-open [aI] is like a sigh of satisfaction. But with satisficing, just when you get to that part, there’s an [s], slicing into it. And if you’re Canadian, the vowel sound even changes: the [a] part raises up a bit in the mouth (say eyes; now say ice; repeat) – and the voiceless consonant following it also makes the vowel shorter (a standard effect in most English phonology). So it’s like relaxing in your easy chair and suddenly getting a sliver of ice down your back.

And then there’s the question of redundancy. If we’re talking business, what does satisfy mean, as in “satisfy requirements”? It means “do enough” – not “do everything” but “do enough” (it’s always meant that; it comes from Latin satis “enough” – also the root of satiated – and facere “do”). And suffice means “be enough, be adequate” (from sub “under” – which is often shifted in sense as an affix – and the same facere). It would seem that satisfice is rather more than enough, especially for a word that means, as Oxford puts it, “To decide on and pursue a course of action that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal.” I guess satisfy, suffice, and various existing phrases had too much latitude for interpretation, and so Herbert Simon came up with this one to stand clearly for just the meaning he wanted. I do feel that he could have come up with a more aesthetically likeable word, but perhaps he didn’t see it as worth the extra effort.

Thanks to Adrienne Montgomerie for wondering aloud about this word on the EAC list.

3 responses to “satisficing

  1. What a punch line! My co-worker is saying “what’s so funny!?” And, as he is not a wordsmith, giving me an exasperated look.

    You _really_ understand this word!

    Who knew, I’ve been satisficing to meet deadlines (and assuage authors egos) all along.

    Hey, thanks for the credit, too.

  2. I just learned about this word this morning – I despise it.

    • It’s not too hard to despise a word for a concept or act that one doesn’t like, is it, especially when it’s emblematic of an attitude or milieu that also gets under one’s skin?

      I remember reading in the Book of Lists or one of its sequels someone’s list of the most beautiful-sounding words in the English language, and one was diarrhea. Nice word, unnice object, neutral milieu. I’d have to take it over satisficing any day myself. (And over mocktail, while I’m thinking about it.)

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