Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Milliband eschews 20/20 hindsight

Snellen eye chart

This morning on BBC TV news Ed Milliband, declining to criticise the ineffective police response to the London riots, told the interviewer “I'm not going to engage in 20/20 hindsight”. What did he mean?

From the context in which it's normally used I've always assumed 20/20 vision meant perfect vision or maybe, as Milliband appears to think, all-round vision; but actually no, it signifies normal vision, for which the technical term appears to be normal visual acuity (VA).

To an optometrist, 20/20 vision means that when you stand 20 feet away from a wallchart, you can see what someone with normal vision can see at that distance.

If you have 20/40 vision, your visual acuity is rather poor. It means at 20 feet, you see what a person with normal vision can see at 40 feet. 20/10 vision means your visual acuity is good; at 20 feet you can see what a person with normal vision would need to step up to 10 feet to see.

20/100 vision means that at 20 feet you can read no more of the wallchart than a person with normal vision could at 100 feet. And 20/200 is the cut-off for legal blindness in the United States.

The information comes from the American Optometric Association. For all I know 20/20 vision may be a specifically American expression, and perhaps something different is used in Europe. It certainly seems to have entered the language as an instance of American business speak. Annoying at the best of times. Doubly so when it's misunderstood even by those who use it.

In metric terms 20/20 becomes 6/6. So if Milliband wanted to be right up to date with his jargon, perhaps he ought to have said “I'm not going to engage in 6/6 hindsight”. Lacks a certain rhythm, but would it have been more happening and abreast of the modern thing?


  1. I always thought 20/20 vision meant perfect vision too - I've heard the phrase "20/20 hindsight" before and this certainly implies that meaning. So - if a term is continually wrongly used like this does it at some point take on the meaning people think it should have, or sounds like it should have, irrespective of its original meaning? Another example I can think of is when someone is described as being "one of a kind". To me that's always meant the person shared characteristics with a group of people, a "type", or "kind" of person (so they were one of that kind). However it now seems to be more commonly used in almost the exact opposite sense - usually now if someone says a certain person is "one of a kind" they are actually describing that person as unique. Maybe it got mixed up with a "one-off"? However, as language is constantly evolving, am I a pedant for picking people up on this? Can a phrase come to mean what it sounds like it should mean, even if it didn't?!

  2. Well, words do change their meanings over time, often by becoming weaker; for example tremendous used to mean something that caused you to tremble with fear, now it just means very big. And you can't do much about that. But 20/20 vision is an example of a phrase which lacks any merit whatsoever except to make the speaker look superior. Were it used correctly then maybe it would have a small amount of merit, though I'm inclined to doubt it. Quantum leap is an example of technical term that’s often used correctly, but, I suspect, not always understood; which defeats the object of using it in the first place. You’ve raised an interesting point and one day I'll write a considered blog post on it.

  3. A further example of misuse of 20/20. By a law professor no less: Barak Obama.

    Under pressure for giving federal funds to a solar energy company that subsequently went bankrupt (and moreover was run by one of his prominent supporters) President Obama told ABC News that he doesn’t regret touting the solar company Solyndra as a model of his jobs program, or loaning $535 million to the company.
    "Hindsight is always 20/20," Obama is quoted as saying. "It went through the regular review process and people felt that it was a good bet."

    ABC NEWS Oct 3, 2011

  4. I can now verify that 20/20 is not just in American usage. This week Eileen was told by an optometrist that her repaired eye has 20/20 vision.