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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

damage control

(1980’s | militarese | “putting out fires,” “keeping things from getting out of hand,” “making the best of a bad situation,” “backing down”)

“Damage control” harks back to “walk back” (q.v.). I skipped a couple of weeks, but I got there.

Before 1975, this phrase came up in two contexts: destruction caused by animals — a federal law was passed in 1931 called the Animal Damage Control Act, and a division of the Department of the Interior is devoted to Animal Damage Control — and repairing problems on board ships (“Damage Control Officer” was a naval title). Somewhere around 1975, it started to turn up in political discourse. When something went wrong with a policy, strategy, or press conference, the politician himself or his staff had to do damage control. In politics, it appears almost exactly contemporaneous with “in the loop” or “out of the loop,” Carter-era terms that became more common after 1980. William Safire, in a 1982 language column, posited a naval origin for the term (he says nothing about harm caused by animals, but that’s obviously a dark-horse etymological candidate, anyway). Because the term sprouted in political journalism, searching “damage control” in LexisNexis during the late seventies and eighties pulls up every blunder, untruth, and scandal of the Carter and Reagan administrations, each of which forced the president’s loyal minions to take steps to make the results look better than they really were. This sort of thing led finally to White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan’s infamous evocation of “a shovel brigade that follow[s] a parade down Main Street cleaning up.” Regan didn’t use the term “damage control,” but a Washington Post headline (November 18, 1986) reporting his comment did. By that time the expression was also available for corporate use, notably in the case of Johnson & Johnson’s response to poisoned Tylenol capsules (1982), widely regarded as a successful damage control effort.

The case of Johnson & Johnson introduces another dichotomy more interesting than the government/corporation dyad (two sides of the same coin at the best of times). “Damage control,” particularly in politics, is often a matter of fixing a self-inflicted problem, as in Regan’s example. The president, or someone, said or did something we’re getting attacked for, so we have to get out there and quell the uprising. But in the case of Johnson & Johnson, the point wasn’t that they could have prevented someone from tampering with bottles of Tylenol; their packaging was no better or worse than anyone else’s. You may lay traps for yourself or be victimized by circumstances beyond your control — either way, sooner or later you will need to do some damage control. In the seventies, when the phrase gained currency, it could be used in a proactive sense to mean addressing a problem before it arose. But that didn’t last long, and “damage control” has held a firmly post hoc meaning for a long time now.

Any institution may need damage control: government at any level and corporations, but also a small business, a sports team, a university, a church. If an individual feels a need to practice damage control, it’s probably a celebrity — it would still sound a little overblown to refer to a husband’s effort to patch up a quarrel by bringing home chocolate and flowers as “damage control.” But you could, because that is primarily what damage control is in practice. It is making the entity you have offended feel better, smoothing ruffled feathers or papering over a disagreement. It’s a way of getting people off your back, whether friends or adversaries, whether it involves a retraction or a new policy to counteract the effects of an old one.

The way an act of damage control is received says much about it and generally demands interpretation. If it isn’t managed well, or if it is required too often, it raises a red flag. It may suggest that you have no principles, or that you are weak and vacillating, because any adverse reaction causes you to change course. Sometimes too much damage control just means you shoot yourself in the foot too often. Yet effective damage control buries the problem and convinces observers that the organization (or employee) is capable and can be trusted to handle whatever comes up.

The term has continued to grow in popularity since the eighties. It still is used most often to talk about institutions getting on top of difficult circumstances, but it is finding a use in medicine: “damage control resuscitation” refers to a way to handle patients in hemorrhagic shock. The treatment relies on large-scale transfusions and preventing further blood loss; restoring blood volume and circulation is the highest priority.

As a bonus for those of you who’ve made it this far, I can’t resist a New York Times summary from May 9, 1974, plagiarized straight from LexisNexis. It contains one of the earliest uses of “damage control” I’ve found, and a lot of other fascinating nuggets. The speaker is now a well-known political journalist: “Dr. John McLaughlin, Jesuit priest who is special assistant to Pres. Nixon, holds extraordinary news conference to deny charges by Sen H. D. Scott and other Republicans that, as Scott put it, the Watergate transcripts portray ‘deplorable, disgusting, shabby, immoral performances’ by Pres. and his aides. . . . McLaughlin, in theological analysis of transcripts, says that any conclusion that they are amoral or immoral ‘is erroneous, unjust and contains elements of hypocrisy.’ Holds Nixon acquitted himself throughout discussions with honor. Holds Nixon’s concern in keeping Watergate scandal from spreading to White House was merely exercise of ‘damage control.’ Says language has ‘no moral meaning’ and use of profanity by Nixon and his aides served as form of ’emotional drainage,’ an understandable ‘form of therapy.'” This is what they teach in seminary?

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