Dear Word Detective: In reading internet news sites and web pages analyzing the various presidential candidates’ standings in the various polls (none of which ever seem to agree, by the way), I keep coming across the term “outlier,” which I don’t remember encountering before the last few years. It seems to mean something like an “anomaly” in the poll data, but with overtones of “something bizarre and meaningless.” I’ve also seen the word applied to a few of the candidates themselves. What does it mean and why are we seeing it everywhere all of a sudden? — Rick Carter.
It means that the herd is on the move again. When European settlers arrived in the New World, the western plains were blanketed by gigantic herds of bison, so numerous that the land itself seemed alive (and covered, the settlers noticed after a few moments, with smelly brown fur). Unfortunately, the noble bison was hunted nearly to extinction in the decades thereafter, and today only a small remnant of those mighty herds remains.
Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and the massive herds of bison were gradually replaced by massive herds of political pundits. Like bison, pundits are slow-witted, unimaginative creatures with a passion for conformity. Their primary activity consists of repeating the words of their herd-mates with minor variations and occasionally stampeding as a group, eyes firmly shut, over the nearest cliff. Between bouts of cliff-jumping, the pundits pass the time by glomming on to popular buzzwords and catch-phrases and slowly gumming them to death. Having driven readers to distraction by invoking “at the end of the day,” “stay the course” and “in harm’s way” ad nauseam for the past few years, the herd has now moved on to “outlier.”
“Outlier” (which is pronounced simply “out-ly-er,” although it looks vaguely French) was originally, when it appeared in English in the early 17th century, simply another word for “outsider,” “nonconformist,” or “weirdo.” An “outlier” was, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “an individual whose origins, beliefs, or behavior place him or her outside a particular establishment or community.” The roots of “outlier” are as simple as its pronunciation: it’s just a combination of “to lie” with “out,” carrying the sense of someone rooted outside the norms of a given community. In a physical sense, we commonly speak of “outlying” houses a bit beyond the edge of town.
The uses of “outlier” by political pundits seem to fall into two categories. One is an extension of the original “outsider” meaning, in which “outlier” is applied to a candidate whose views and pronouncements fall outside the mainstream of party orthodoxy (i.e., the guy at the far edge of the debate stage). The other sense commonly seen today is borrowed from the field of statistics, where an “outlier” is a data point or result that falls substantially outside the boundaries of the distribution expected or predicted by other results, and is usually disregarded. Answers to a survey that revealed that ninety percent of Iowa voters favored invading Mars at the earliest opportunity, for example, would probably be considered an “outlier” by pollsters. Then again, it’s still early in the year.