On benchmarks, timetables, and schedules

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun May 27 16:15:18 UTC 2007

A guidepost to target dates.

By WILLIAM SAFIRE Published: May 27, 2007

Iraqi Backs Benchmark Action was the Washington Times
headline over an article about the recent visit to the U.S. by Barham
Salih, the Kurd who is deputy prime minister of Iraq.

What is a benchmark, and how does it differ from a timetable? Whats a
guidepost, and how is it different from a yardstick or a target date or a
milestone? What is a timeline, and how close is it to a guideline or a
deadline? The synonymy of standard-setting needs a road map. To try this
in todays poisonous atmosphere is to strike a match in a room filled with
gasbags. One source I approached for definitions and distinctions
castigated me for trivializing the war. Words, however, have connotations
that can color, sharpen or diffuse meaning; this can help those drawing
lines in the sand find some common ground and beats silent glowering or
mutual expostulation.

Take target date. The Department of Defenses Dictionary of Military and
Associated Terms defines it thus: The date on which it is desired that an
action be accomplished or initiated. Sounds crisp, but the phrase is
colored by desired; Prof. Bruce Fraser at Boston University cautions that
target dates are usually estimates that one expects to be ignored, while a
timetable locks in the dates, which, if ignored, usually call for an
explanation. That, or a withdrawal of troops from a war zone. Timetable is
the word most of the Democratic Congress prefers in legislation mandating
a firm schedule of withdrawal from Iraq, no matter what the future state
of the war. Nearly two years ago, Senator Russell Feingold (D.-Wisc.) put
forward a target completion date the end of 2006.  In November 2005, he
moved to the stronger word but with a modifier: we need a policy in Iraq
that includes a flexible timetable for completing our military mission
there. A White House statement called that an artificial timetable, while
President Bush went further, characterizing it an artificial deadline.

Since then, modifiers have mostly been dropped. Deadline is the most final
word describing a standard of measuring time; it was coined in the Civil
War to denote a line drawn before a prison fence beyond which a prisoner
could not venture without being shot. And flexible is no longer an
adjective of antiwar choice. Timetable is a word emblematic of modernity,
observes Joe Pickett at American Heritage Dictionary, the hallmark of an
industrialized society, originally the train. Timetables are the things
humans have to follow to achieve success in modern society. He adds,
Guideposts, usually showing how something has been done, also tend toward
moral or personal metaphors life as a journey, pilgrims progress.
Milestone? A related term, but one with very positive connotations.
Signposts are poles for directions, often including arrows, but the word
has not made a figurative leap, as road map has.

Timeline, to my ear, is no longer synonymous with timetable; it is now a
historical chronology, just short of a journalistic tick-tock, or a
minute-by-minute account. Guideline has an economic coloration from
long-past jawboning days. A schedule is a listing of planned events in
time; the word is as dry as the papyrus strip in which it is rooted. Now
to benchmark. It has never meant a mark on a bench or a cigarette burn on
your desk. The bench could be a hard, flat surface, a rock or an
outcropping on which a surveyor could hammer in an elevation marker; or a
bracket or bench in which to insert an angle iron to support a leveling
rod. (Dont try this on my account.) It gained a figurative meaning among
stargazers in 1884 as reference points and bench-marks of the universe,
coming to mean touchstone, gauge, measure or criterion used to judge

Because the word has that reference-point meaning, it is not as soft as
goals (anathema to those demanding scheduled withdrawal by a date certain)
nor as rigid as a timetable (which Vice President Cheney this month
derogated as legislation that . . . would guarantee defeat). A benchmark
in Iraq could be interpreted as objective and specific as passage of
legislation in Baghdads Parliament fairly divvying up the nations oil or
as subjective and general as progress toward reducing the level of
violence. By its elasticity, the word could, with luck, turn out to be a
term to build a pontoon bridge on.

I've been a friend of the remarkable Kurdish people for more than three
decades, and before boarding his plane to return to Baghdad, Barham Salih
returned a call. My question: How are these English words that are being
used in the White House and Congress benchmark, timetable, yardstick,
deadline, guidepost and the other criteria terms understood in Iraq?
Deadlines are a bad idea; frankly, weve been unable to deliver on them in
the past, Salih says. Signposts is better. I'm told that in Arabic, a
rough equivalent to what we think of as a benchmark or point of reference
is thawabit, and the word for schedule or timetable sounds like jadwal
zamani; in Kurdish, ast.

But a word, in Arabic, Dr. Salih says, that is not exactly the same but
expresses a similar thought, is iltizamat  commitments. In Kurdish, that
word is ar akakan  the responsibility of the government to act.  (Another
Kurdish word for that sense of duty is pewana.) We know that if we want
sustained American engagement, we have to adjust, and we know the clock is
ticking. The words you use? Your leaders speak plain English well, and we



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