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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

in the loop, out of the loop

in the loop (1980’s | journalese (politics) | “part of the inner circle,” “in the know,” “on the inside”)

out of the loop (1980’s | journalese (politics) | “unaware,” “(kept) in the dark,” “out of the picture”)

Either way, it’s a political expression. When you try to think of pre-1975 equivalents for “in the loop” and “out of the loop” (listed above) you see that the concept was not so neatly binary back then. It is, I concede, handy to have complementary expressions to talk about one of the most important distinctions in politics: that between who’s in and who’s out, who has clout and who doesn’t, who understands what’s happening and who doesn’t. The “of” imposed by standard English does spoil the symmetry somewhat, but not enough to matter. This pair of expressions thrives in politics because they are both used to talk about deliberate human decisions that try to pass themselves off as acts of God. One does not retire voluntarily from the loop, or rather when one does, we use different words. One may be left, or cut, out of the loop against one’s will, but someone somewhere is exercising conscious intent in so doing. As I’ve noted before, politicians gravitate toward phrases that help them disguise their intentions.

The Carter administration favored “in the loop,” and the Reagan administration preferred “out of the loop,” which suggests that Republicans are more concerned with putting people in their place than Democrats are. The locus classicus of the political use of this phrase remains George H.W. Bush’s defense during his presidential campaign in 1988: that he was “out of the loop” on the Iran-Contra scandal that dogged the last years of Reagan’s presidency. He meant that he was ignorant: no one had ever mentioned in his presence the illegal funneling of ill-gotten money to the Contras, which explicitly violated the law and, worse, gave us Oliver North. He was somewhere else when it all happened. Bush had a history with this expression; in the early eighties it had been used to suggest he was disengaged and ineffectual. During the campaign, he succeeded in bending the term into a badge of innocence, and the strategy worked. Bush won the election partly by wearing the now time-honored mantle of the popular but clueless executive.

Someone out there must have a good explanation of the origin of these expressions, but I don’t. “In the loop” was first associated with Walter Mondale and other members of the Carter administration, or at least that was where I found the first instances in LexisNexis or Google Books. Before that, the main place these paired expressions turned up was in electronics or computers. In programming, a “loop” was defined as “any part of a program, long or short, that is repeated over and over again” (Murphy, Basics of Digital Programming, 1972). Instead of a linear sequence, we envision a circle, where it is only one step from the last link in a chain back to the first. So you would see references to “getting out of the loop,” which meant telling the processor to stop and go onto the next step or sequence. It was pragmatic and literal, a term born of the empiric. Most uses of “in the loop” or “out of the loop” were likewise technical, found in biology textbooks or engineering reports, even aviation. But getting out of the loop in computerese means avoiding getting stuck in a backwater somewhere; in other words, it’s closer to how we use “in the loop.” Even allowing for the way phrases mutate when they move into new spheres, I don’t see any particular connection. So how, or where, did Mondale come up with “in the loop”? Engineers consort with military men, from whom politicians love to steal vocabulary, because whatever the colonels are saying must be strong and manly, right? It’s the best explanation I can think of, and it’s not very convincing.

In the eighties and before, “out of the loop” might have a technocratic shading, as in this example from Infoworld (1986): “first, is it possible for someone to gain unauthorized access to the worldwide network of computers and sensors that make up the military’s early warning systems, which is designed to protect the U.S. from nuclear attack; and second, will the Pentagon take the “man out of the loop”?’” In other words: Will the process be entirely automated, with no human intervention at any point? This is slightly different from the idea of being deliberately excluded from sharing information, but only slightly; the technocratic usage is a bit less personal, but it denotes the same operation. “Out of the loop” nowadays sometimes comes close to “shunned”: it’s malicious and requires a conspiracy of some kind. Keeping someone out of the loop might be a beneficent gesture in politics, allowing a politician to skate free because he just didn’t understand what was going on. But in social situations it can be as harsh as being cut dead was in olden days. More than “in the loop,” it has gone beyond its political origins to cast a much wider social net.


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