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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

wiggle room

(1990’s | bureaucratese | “leeway,” “room to maneuver,” “margin for error,” “slack,” “discretion”)

Until the mid-sixties, this phrase, used mainly in shoe advertisements or sewing manuals, had to do with trying on clothes or footwear. A secondary meaning was used more in the context of a different kind of fit, as a car or airplane seat. How much freedom does your body have; how much restraint and discomfort are you subject to? For toes or torso, some wiggle room is a good thing, recommended by mothers and fashion consultants alike.

Politicians and diplomats were the first to use the expression in a more fanciful way. I found several uses in the Congressional Record, including one from 1967 that attributed it to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. (Even in my boyhood “Dean Rusk” sounded like a name from the distant past — one got him mixed up with Dean Acheson — and I doubt most people under thirty have ever heard of him. While I’m digressing, am I the only one who gets pissed off because Google Books shows the Congressional Record in “snippet view”? I couldn’t identify the blankety-blank member of Congress who credited Rusk with popularizing the metaphorical use of “wiggle room” because of this policy, which makes absolutely no sense. The Record is a government publication and not copyrighted, and it is a fundamental text for citizens trying to learn about our government and its history (I abjure the temptation to launch into a third digression on the fact that we are all consumers rather than citizens now). The Library of Congress has scanned the Record only as far back as 1989 but will let you look at all of it; Google has all of it scanned and won’t let you see so much as a single complete page. Why, Google, why? In your not-so-infinite wisdom.)

In fact, Life magazine quoted Rusk using “wiggle room” in an interview given as his tenure ended (January 1969), so he may indeed have imparted momentum to this expression. It was a down-home kind of phrase, and he was a down-home kind of guy. Based on what I found on LexisNexis and Google Books, it seems to have remained the property of government officials through the eighties, though it may have turned up occasionally in other contexts. William Safire, a particularly keen observer of officialese, devoted half a column to it in 1984; in those pre-database days, the earliest citation he found was in a 1978 Business Week (you’d think Safire would remember Dean Rusk’s verbal quiddities, but apparently not — or maybe Rusk really wasn’t known for using the phrase, the Congressional Record in snippy view notwithstanding).

By 2000 it was widely used, both in terms of sheer number of citations and variety of fields and contexts. It’s one of those expressions whose definition hasn’t broadened, and even in the early days it was usually presented without a gloss. Much as I would like “wiggle room” to mean “discotheque,” it denotes a way of acknowledging contingency and change. Wiggle room lets you massage the numbers. Wiggle room lets you get away with this and that, temporize, make exceptions, or evade limits. That also makes it a lawyer’s dream; wiggle room opens up vistas of interpretation that must be argued and ruled upon. It’s sort of the opposite of zero tolerance or mandatory sentencing, procrustean devices enacted to make the legal system more fair which inevitably make it less so. “Wiggle room” gets less commendable when it becomes a way to avoid committing yourself to anything, and it can have a downright unsavory connotation in the mouth of a purist. A classic example was Ronald Reagan’s spokesman, Larry Speakes, equating wiggle room with “weasel room” in 1984. Men of principle have no use for loose language or slippery logic that gives them an easy out. Here “wiggle room” means no more than a pre-planned means of going back on your word.

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