EXPEDIENT: fit to fulfill a purpose

thumbs-upEvery now and then I discover that I’ve been using a word incorrectly.  Being somewhat of a wordsmith, this is embarrassing, to say the least.


Such is the case for the word expedient. I have been using this word for years, thinking that it meant speedily, or in good time.  For some reason, there was a time factor involved in the meaning of the word.

I would say something like, “It’s expedient to use this method, rather than wasting time on other ways of doing it.”   Or, I can remember saying “We have to do what is expedient.  Right now, time is the issue.”

It turns out that you would have to stretch the idea quite a long ways in order to get to that meaning.  Yes, there is something time efficient about doing something correctly, and using a method that is appropriate to the purpose.   But that’s not exactly what expedient means.

Expedient has more to do with doing something correctly, or using a tried and tested method, than it does about timing.   But I think I’ve been confusing the word expedient with the word expedite or expdedition.  These words do mean to “speed something up.”    I think you can see how I have confused these two words, and I suspect I am not alone in it.

I went to Garner’s book to see what he had to say on the subject, and, sure enough, there was a strongly-worded commentary about how people (like me) confuse these terms.   He says:

“...Expediency (=consideration of what is politically convenient) is sometimes confounded with expedition (=promptness, haste).  (The corresponding  adjectives expedient and expeditious are likewise misused….”

This quote from his book raises another shade of the meaning of expedient, i.e. what is politically convenient.  I hadn’t known about that definition, and it doesn’t pop up in any of the dictionaries I consulted.  However, the

World English Dictionary did have this to say:

inclined towards methods or means that are advantageous rather than fair or just”

Without coming out and saying it clearly, there is a nod towards the meaning that Garner has raised.   It would mean that expedient can mean employing a method that works, although it may not be the correct thing to do.  (That is to say, it is politically convenient.)

When I read this I jumped in my mind to the whole debacle which has been created by the current “sequester” action undertaken by Congress and signed by the President.   It was a bill promoted a year ago as a way of getting us through the imminent financial disaster (the proverbial Fiscal Cliff) facing the nation.   Many in Congress will say that it was never believed that the Congress would allow us to get to the point where the sequestration actions (immediate cuts to all budges overseen by Congress) would take place.   It was just a method to scare the Congress into action when the time came.   But it backfired, and on January 1 the sequestration cuts began to take place.

In other words, the Sequestration Act was expedient…not necessarily the right way to go, but something that “worked.”    Now we are feeling the effects of this horrendous fiscal plan and realizing that it may have been politically convenient, but it is a disaster as far as the operation of the U.S. government goes.

Well, it seems that my inquiry about the word expedient has led to an immediate benefit.  I have found a word to describe something that is current and troublesome.


Illustration Credit:  VisionWell

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