Printable Version
Pronunciation: pê-ræm-ê-têr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. One of a set of factors that define a system and determine its behavior. 2. (Mathematics) A constant in an equation that varies in other equations of the same general form.

Notes: Probably because of confusion with perimeter, this word recently has been used to refer to any factor determining or limiting a range of variations. You are more likely to establish the perimeters of a mine field than any of its parameters. Be careful when referring to factors that limit variations; perimeter is more likely the term you need. The adjective for today's word is parametric(al) and the adverb, parametrically. This word has a verb, too, parameterize, meaning "to characterize in terms of parameters".

In Play: Everything has its parameters: "Road rage has added an unexpected new parameter to driving in the United States." Now, here is a borderline case: "Constance has written something outside the parameters of modern fiction." This is OK so long as it means that the factors determining modern fiction do not apply to Constance's work. However, perimeter would also work here.

Word History: Today's Good Word is a modification of New Latin parametrum "line parallel to the curve generated by the intersection of a plane with a circular cone". The Latin word was made up of Greek constituents: para "beside" + metron "measure". The Greek preposition para comes from the same source as English for, German für "for", French pour "for", and many others across the Indo-European languages. Metron seems to have come from PIE me- "measure", which ended on some unknown consonant. In English, it emerged with an L as meal, which retains some of the old sense of measure in piecemeal. In Old English, it also turned up with an N in mon "moon", which we retain today in Monday. We also have moon, a universal measure of time.

Dr. Goodword,

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