This thing is spectrumy.
April 28, 2009 4:40 PM   Subscribe

How would one go about describing something that has the qualities of a spectrum in its conception? For example, some say homosexuality is a spectrum rather than a series of different levels/states. Same with autism.

I'm wanting to describe such things as spectral... but that doesn't sound right. Is there another word that exists for this? Thanks.
posted by jhighmore to Writing & Language (22 answers total)
I would call it a continuous variable, rather than a discrete variable.
posted by grouse at 4:41 PM on April 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

2nd "continuous".
posted by pompomtom at 4:45 PM on April 28, 2009

Nthing continuous. Depending on context, people might say 'continuously variable' or 'infinitely variable' as well.
posted by box at 4:47 PM on April 28, 2009

continuous won't work. People will have no idea what you're talking about; they'd probably think you meant "ongoing", as in, if you have autism now, you'll probably have it later.

I don't think there is one word that you can use, unexplained, and have everyone understand you. If you want to write a sentence such as: "with an XXXX disease, like autism, the criteria for diagnosis are mostly determined by societal norms rather than medical certainty", I think you're out of luck.
posted by goingonit at 5:10 PM on April 28, 2009

Analogue (continuously variable) as opposed to digital (discrete steps) might do, also, but I prefer continuous.
posted by Leon at 5:11 PM on April 28, 2009

Unless you're writing about math, goingonit might have a point. Maybe 'continuously-variable' the first time, then 'continuous' after that?

Are you writing about medicine, or another topic?
posted by box at 5:13 PM on April 28, 2009

I always such things described as "on a spectrum."
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:14 PM on April 28, 2009

"spectral" would be technically correct, as it means "on a spectrum."

However, I'd avoid it because it also means "referring to a specter," which is likely why it sounds wrong to everyone here, myself included. box's and grouse's "continuously variable" is as unambiguous a term as you can get, but the word continuous is also going to get you into trouble for its confusion with "unending" if you're going to use it in discussion. (Aside: as soon as you've had to stop the conversation to explain a term you've used, the conversation is over and has become a lecture).

Referring to your two examples, you could say that sexuality and autism are both "nuanced," but I'm sure there are other situations of spectrums where "nuanced" wouldn't make any sense.

Nit pick: some say that sexuality is measured on a spectrum, not homosexuality.
posted by coryinabox at 5:18 PM on April 28, 2009

posted by desjardins at 5:22 PM on April 28, 2009

"Continuum" is the word I use in this situation.

Or more colloquially, "shades of grey".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:23 PM on April 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Picking up on desjardins' suggestion, how about "gradated" or "finely gradated"?
posted by Rock Steady at 6:15 PM on April 28, 2009

I would definitely understand "continuously variable," and I count myself as a layperson.
posted by pullayup at 6:22 PM on April 28, 2009

Graduated implies a series of discrete points along a scale i.e.of graduated severity. Without a specific context, however, it would be difficult to assess what would work best.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:04 PM on April 28, 2009

You won't find a single word, I expect. You may tire of saying "It isn't an on/off thing — there are degrees of it." Or: "It's on a continuum." Or: "You can be somewhere on a spectrum." Or: "It's shades of gray instead of black and white." But I don't think there's a word that replaces those and doesn't sow confusion.
posted by argybarg at 7:10 PM on April 28, 2009

Seconding "gradated".
posted by unknowncommand at 7:24 PM on April 28, 2009

I'd say exists "on the *insert* spectrum"
eg "has an Tic spectrum disorder" / "is on the Autism spectrum".

To list many of those conditions - "a condition that exists on a spectrum" Sorry it's clunky.
Or spectrum disorders or spectrum conditions.

And no, I wouldn't use or immediately understand 'continuous' - I automatically think 'continous in time'.

I wouldn't say 'homosexuality' spectrum, since it is actually where you are on the 'Sexuality' spectrum but people wouldn't get that (though for that specific instance refering to the 'Kinsey scale' tends to work) - so where there are two things generally defined discretely, to avoid confusion then I might include each end of the axis, say the "hetero/homo-sexuality spectrum".

Other common practices are listing the major syndrome in a spectrum - eg OC Spectrum.

Until someone comes up with a word that doesn't usually primarily and only mean 'ghost', in most cases I'd just treat it as if the word 'spectrum' inconveniently doesn't have an adjective.
posted by Elysum at 7:47 PM on April 28, 2009

hmm, I would use "scale" if what you're talking about has definitive end points, otherwise I'd maybe refer to something as being on a "curve" (not meaning a "bell curve" so much as a straight line without specified ends).

Interesting question though.
posted by MatJ at 7:51 PM on April 28, 2009

I'm surprised only one person has mentioned black and white thus far. I'm a teacher, and sometimes I tell my (adult) students to picture a spectrum of extremes. One end is black and the other is white. If they're having a hard time picturing this I'll go into Word and make a little gradient in about 20 seconds. Everything in the middle is a shade of gray - the only question is which one?

Going back to the OP, one could describe homosexuality in any number of ways along the spectrum. On one extreme you might have a completely hetero guy with zero interest in other guys; on the opposite end you have a completely homosexual guy with zero interest in girls. Make up the points at various stages in between - Kinsey did something with a seven-point scale awhile back.
posted by chrisinseoul at 10:19 PM on April 28, 2009

I use discrete or continuous, in accordance with their common usage in math and engineering.
posted by FauxScot at 1:17 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about "range"? c.The full extent covered: within the range of possibilities.
FYI: the Kinsey Scale.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:42 AM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Hey, thanks for your answers everyone. I'm still not 100% sure what I'd be happy using but there are a lot of great ideas. It's also interesting that spectral does actually mean "on a spectrum", and yet I agree if anyone used this is a conversation it would quickly turn towards the subtleties of ghosts..

"Nit pick: some say that sexuality is measured on a spectrum, not homosexuality."

Sorry, I did mean to write that!
posted by jhighmore at 6:03 AM on April 29, 2009

I've heard such things described as linear.
posted by Piscean at 6:16 PM on April 29, 2009

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