What does heuristic mean?

Word count: 215 words

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

If you increase your vocabulary you’ll not only help your reading, you’ll also make your writing more precise. Here is my word of the week.

When I read Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You  last month, I scribbled a note to myself about one of his words: heuristic.

I’d heard the word before, of course, dating back to my own time in university. But the meaning didn’t trip off my tongue. Here is the sentence in which he used it:

We need a more nuanced heuristic, something that could make clear exactly what brand of control trap you’re facing.  

Interestingly, heuristic is both an adjective and a noun, so you can have a heuristic method and you can have a plain old heuristic. Basically, it refers to a type of problem-solving based on experimentation, evaluation or trial-and-error. In computer science, a heuristic is a technique designed for solving problems when classic methods are too slow. As a noun, a heuristic is  a rule-of-thumb, procedure, or method.

The word heuristic comes from the Greek heuretikos, meaning “inventive” which in turn relates to heuriskein, meaning “to find.”

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