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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: diplomacy

ratchet up

(1980’s | journalese? | “turn up the heat, etc.,” “increase (gradually)”)

I first became acquainted with the noble ratchet in my father’s toolbox, and I understood it to be a special type of socket wrench that made it easy to loosen or tighten bolts in narrow places. If you could only move your handle a quarter turn, the ratchet made it possible to keep making that same quarter turn over and over again; each time you returned the handle to its initial position, the socket, and therefore the bolt, didn’t move. Plus, it made a satisfying fast clicking sound when you moved the handle back preparatory to making the next turn in the desired direction. The noble bumper jack uses the same mechanism, or mountain-climbing gear.

“Ratchet” until my youth was a mechanical, industrial term, encountered in patent filings and hardware catalogues. It was used but rarely in a figurative way, though one can certainly find examples during the seventies, and probably before with better corpora. It sneaked first into everyday language through economics, I think, as in the phrase “inflation ratchet,” which denotes the principle that inflation only goes up and can’t reverse direction, closely related to its meaning in the mechanic’s vocabulary. (Inflation did keep going up through the seventies, so the phrase got some use.) The word had then, and continues to convey, a gradual quality; you wouldn’t use “ratchet” in the context of runaway inflation. Economists and political reporters would occasionally use “ratchet” as a verb — it could go before “up,” “down,” or “tighter” — but more often intransitively. Now we use it habitually in the transitive, and “tighter” rarely appears; “up” seems to be the preferred adverbial accompaniment. “Ratchet down” has always complemented “ratchet up” but at a lower frequency.

Funny thing about this phrase: while “ratchet up” may be used, transitively or intransitively, with a wide range of nouns, there are a few that it goes with regularly: pressure, tensions, rhetoric. It’s not invariable or inherent, but I think “ratchet” often has an inexorable quality that becomes aggressive or coercive when used transitively. When a general wants to threaten another nation, or a football coach wants to inspire the defense, or a diplomat aims to use strong language, they reach for “ratchet.” Perhaps because of the phonetic similarity to “rack,” I envision ratcheting up pressure as a kind of slow torture, testing the victim’s ability to endure ever-increasing strain. Maybe the fact that “ratchet” has a mechanical origin contributes to the association with instruments of torture. Intransitively, the verb is less sinister; when no overt agent is doing the tormenting, it can be an impersonal process. “Tensions are ratcheting up between North and South Korea” doesn’t bear the same animus as “North Korea ratchets up tensions with South Korea.”

“Ratchet” has a couple other meanings worthy of note. “Ratchet-jawed” in CB radio slang described a person who talked a lot and talked fast. (It is possible to talk fast but not very much; y’all remember Boomhauer on King of the Hill?) That sense is probably obsolete now. Why not “power jaw” or “rapid-fire jaw”? It’s not an intuitive extension of the normal uses of “ratchet”; neither is the African-American slang use, derived from “wretched,” which doesn’t have to do with misery and privation but disgust and revulsion. I’m not sure there’s semantic relationship with “ratchet up”; if so, it’s not obvious. While “ratchet” has loosened its meaning so that it often is no more than a synonym for “increase,” it has maintained a foothold in our language. I hope it can hang onto traces of its original specificities over time.


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play the race card

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “appeal to one’s worst instincts,” “stir up trouble”)

Apparently a Briticism, which came as rather a surprise to me, considering the expression smacks so richly of American penchants for prejudice and poker. The earliest appearances in LexisNexis began in the U.K. ca. 1986 and didn’t show up in U.S. sources until 1990, though it took root very quickly (see penchants noted above). No hits from any country in Google Books before 1985, either. I would love to have a fuller understanding of the origin of “play the race card.” Few expressions have a clear origin or single inventor, but normally one finds isolated early examples preceding a flowering, or similar expressions serving as transitional forms. (In this case, an example might be Nixon’s references to playing the China card, presumably part of an old China hand, as one source suggests.) But in this case it seems to have caught on more or less instantly, at least by linguistic standards. Some sources suggest that the O.J. Simpson trial lent it ubiquity in the U.S.

The other surprise came out of the discovery that in those early British instances, and in many early American ones, too, the race card was played by the majority, fomenting suspicion and hatred of a minority group. I’ve grown used to hearing the practice imputed to members of minorities, trying to claim special privileges based on past discrimination. But it was originally a left-wing attack phrase, used of nationalist or anti-immigrant parties in England. Jesse Helms’s 1990 campaign for Senate against Harvey Gantt (who was African-American) ran an ad accusing him of favoring racial quotas, whereupon Helms was condemned for “playing the race card.” It worked; he came from behind to win a close election. By 2008, Republicans routinely accused Obama of the tactic; actually, right-wingers are happy to claim anyone, black, white, or red all over, is playing the race card. No matter which side does it, it is more than a breach of etiquette; it is dishonorable, a matter of taking unfair advantage. (It also constitutes a form of intimidation.) Which is a little strange, because in poker (or, more likely, bridge, as Lovely Liz points out), there’s nothing suspect about playing a card; it’s part of the normal course of the game. When transposed into politics, it becomes a low-down act, but maybe that says more about politics than cards.

The expression has spawned a few imitators; one hears occasional references to the “gender card,” “religion card,” “terrorist card,” or other nonce cards — but none as common, or quite as venomous, as “race card.” One rarely acknowledges playing the race card oneself; it is an accusation. Nor does one admire deft use of the race card, even when played effectively. Like negative campaigning, push polling, and plenty of other dubious political practices, everyone deplores it but will happily engage in it if it has any chance of working. Who says bipartisanship is dead?

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bring to the table

(1980’s | businese | “have to offer,” “start out with”)

What one brings to the table by definition benefits the party already there. It is a positive term, rarely used ironically, indicating qualities that will improve an existing situation or resolve a problem. In a job interview, it’s the thing that makes you desirable. Among athletes, it’s what will make the team into a winner. In diplomacy, it’s a bargaining chip that helps move the process along. Generally, it’s what you can do to help. There was a time when it might connote baggage as well as benefit; what you brought to the table was simply what you had, good or bad. But since 1980 or so, it has taken on the favorable connotation exclusively. The phrase arose in business and government; nowadays athletes also use it a lot. To my ear at least, when a phrase becomes popular among athletes, it has stepped irrevocably over the border into cliché country. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it has to do with the fact that professional sports figures are quick to adopt new expressions from each other and use them frequently thereafter, rarely with any imagination or creativity.

You have to keep your eye on the table, because idioms that rely on that word come from different places. “Bring to the table” calls to mind negotiation: the big table everyone sits around to hammer out an agreement. “Everything on the table” almost certainly comes out of gambling — the moment of showing your hand. “Seat at the table” could come from either, or from the dining room. To get anywhere at any table, a seat is the minimum requirement. Waiters bring things to the table all the time, but that sort of pig-headed literal-mindedness doesn’t get the blog written. In all these expressions, the table by now is purely metaphorical; when an actual table is involved, we understand it to be a play on words.

There’s a certain kind of new expression that develops a settled usage even though it is not particularly distinctive and could occur in everyday conversation without any reference to the specialized meaning. That description is a little vague, so let me offer some examples: “at the end of the day,” “be careful out there,” “do the math,” “don’t even think about it,” “good luck with that,” “I’ll shut up now,” “in a good place,” “play well with others,” “smartest guy in the room,” “what’s your point?.” All of these expressions have in common an ordinariness, almost a triviality, that allows us to notice, if we think about it, that they could just as well have no meaning beyond that carried by the word string itself. And yet, when we hear such phrases, we grasp an extra dimension, so that even if the sense of the expression is not much different from the literal sense of the words, we know we are hearing a distinct expression. There must be a process that allows such utterances to transmogrify into idioms, but I don’t understand it. Is there any way to predict that “I’ll shut up now” would take on a universe of connotation while “I’ll go to the store” (so far) has not?

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failed state

(1990’s | academese? journalese? | “social collapse,” “anarchy,” “unrest”)

This term attempts to denote a single phenomenon, but each manifestation looks different from all the others. It is roughly defined as a government no longer able to provide what you might call basic services — roads, education, law enforcement, etc. — or the nation ruled by such a government. That’s the carrot-centric way to look at it; the big stick approach says it is a government that no longer maintains a monopoly on violence. Failure may be caused by civil war, corruption, insurgency, economic depression, or any shock to the system. The first uses in LexisNexis date from 1992, including an article in the journal Foreign Policy by Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner that has been cited as bringing the phrase to general attention. (I didn’t find anything to suggest that they didn’t invent the expression, but I didn’t look very hard.) Somalia was the first example to spring to everyone’s lips, with Haiti a close second; Rwanda and Bosnia were not far behind. Pundits may disagree on whether any given nation is a failed state or not, but most of them happily agree that there are a lot of failed states, which is handy in case a large western nation feels like limbering up an invasion force. States that look like they might fail any day now are called “fragile states.” (Here’s an SAT analogy for you: “fragile state” is to “failed state” as “food insecurity” is to “hunger.”) One commentator urges the absurdity of referring to states as “failed” that had never been successful, or functioned at all.

Experienced pundit-watchers will note that most failed states reside in what we like to call the third world, and there’s no doubt that the phrase is every bit as paternalistic as it sounds. The more deleterious the effect of previous western interference in the state in question, the less polite it is to bring it up — just as it’s not cricket to observe that first world nations routinely show shocking ineptitude in their efforts to impose effective governments on third world nations. The phrase long since emerged from scholarly lingo to become common currency among politicians and bureaucrats, who are in the best position to send the marines to restore order, or at least grab some of the goods. If enough Americans and Europeans (aw, hell, let’s throw in the Japanese and Australians, but not the Chinese and Russians!) think you’re a failed state, you can expect bombing runs or foreign soldiers spraying bullets. So it’s not a term to throw around lightly.

If “failed” turns out to be a bit unsavory when applied to nations, maybe we can make room for other uses of the adjective. I thought of it only this morning when I walked into the kitchen and realized we had forgotten to refrigerate, or even cover, a partly eaten mango yesterday: voilà, a failed mango. We’ve all been to failed parties. If your computer refuses to yield up your hard-entered data, you have a failed hard drive. As a longtime devotee of Monty Python, my thoughts can hardly fail to turn to failed parrots. It’s much more poetic and pathetic than referring to any old botch as a “fail,” as these kids today do.

June 26, 2016: It occurred to me that “Failed State” might also be the name of a university, as in, “Yeah, I went to Failed State.” I’ve been trying to come up with a team nickname for the school. After entertaining Second Bananas, Lieutenants, and Albatrosses, I’ve decided to go with Underdogs. Those who prefer the collective-noun-as-team-name formula that became standard after my childhood — which has penetrated the NBA but not the NFL or MLB (professional soccer led the way, as I recall) — can use Underdog.

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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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walk back

(2000’s | bureaucratese | “retract,” “backpedal on,” “back down from,” “tone down,” “mitigate”)

It does not apply to dogs, horses, or bicycles, or tracing a stream to its source. Nor does it mean the same thing as “walk away from,” although there are situations in which either phrase could aptly be used. Not to mention “back away from,” which is pretty close — same sense of moving cautiously and disassociating yourself from the subject at hand, effectively the opposite of talking back. “Walk back” does not mean “turn back” or even “turn one’s back on,” although, once again, there are moments when you might be excused for detecting them in the background. To confuse matters further, it sometimes is used to mean “restore to a previous state,” or even “turn things around.” In these cases the expression adds a temporal dimension to “back” that is only implicit in its more common manifestation.

It’s what you do when you or one of your colleagues exaggerates, or says something stupid, or goes off the rails, although the phrase is generally applied to statements or policies rather than faux pas of other kinds. You do it when you have to, but no one ever enjoys walking it back. Because it always applies to some sort of disavowal, it may be used neutrally or scornfully, but walking back a statement or policy is not sold as a principled act even by the most brazen politicians. It may be presented as an explanation or clarification, however. It is closely connected to “damage control,” and less obviously related to lowering expectations (also a political term of abuse), when it is done to temper a far-reaching policy announcement (or leak). The phrase “walk it back” means “eat one’s words,” when you’re overruling yourself, or “clean up after . . .” if it’s someone else. Simply enough, the act of walking back is a “walkback” (sometimes hyphenated).

One point of semantic interest about “walk back”: It makes it easy to introduce the idea of a partial renunciation of what you said yesterday. So you might read that an official, or spokesperson, walked back her comments a bit, meaning she stands by most of what she said but has rethought an insignificant part of it. The phrase “partial retraction” has been around for a while, but today’s alternative seems folksier and pleasanter. Politicians are always on the lookout for ever more delicate ways of wiggling out of whatever inconvenient thing they said last week or last year.

Sen. Chuck Hagel traced the expression to “State Department parlance” in 2002, and LexisNexis bears him out. The earliest instances I found in LexisNexis date from the mid-1980’s, invariably in the context of international relations. Our president, or someone else’s president, says something radical (by mistake, of course), and the diplomats have to get out there and walk it back. Politicians and journalists used it now and then during the 1990’s, but it remained insider vocabulary at least until 2000, when it became more common among officials while starting to appear in other contexts. Even now, the phrase is far more comfortable in political discourse than anywhere else, but it can be used naturally in legal contexts, or in discussions of corporate policy, or even on the sports page. The phrase jumped in frequency with Obama’s rise in 2008, even though I don’t associate it with him. Even a moderately active news consumer might still not have absorbed the expression by the beginning of 2008, but he surely had by the beginning of 2010.

The diplomatic origin of the expression is fairly clear, but why “walk back,” anyway? My best guess is that it’s a transitive variation on “backtrack,” which was already common in political reporting before 1980. Not invariably, but often, it was used to mean “renege on an earlier commitment or position,” which would make it a clear forerunner of today’s expression. Pat Buchanan (McLaughlin Group, 2009) offered an elaboration that I doubt points to an origin, but might: “this cat is out of the bag and he [Eric Holder] can’t walk it back.” (That refreshing touch of the literal is hard to resist when you’re creating folk etymologies.) Doesn’t “walk back” just sound like diplomatic language? Not “roll back,” “push back,” or “cross out” (much less “strike out”). Even if we have to weasel out of absolutely everything the boss said yesterday, we’ll make it sound like we’re strolling home from the park. Diplomats are famous for this sort of thing. Compare “frank exchange of views,” which means “heated argument.”

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(1980’s | businese? | “mutually advantageous,” “everybody gets a piece of the pie,” “everybody’s happy,” “best of both worlds”)

“Win-win,” now commonly used as a noun but originally an adjective, rose up within the art and science of negotiation, whether in discussions of pre-divorce mediation, collective bargaining, sales, or politics. Everyone gets something; no one goes away mad. At first it pertained only to adversarial situations; originally the term was conventionally opposed to “win-lose,” where one party bests (or even humiliates) the other. Rare in 1980, by 1990 it was used frequently in almost any situation where all concerned are at least vaguely satisfied, whether as a result of negotiation or not. “Win-win” could be spelled with a comma or a virgule, but to me it looks most normal with a hyphen. Although the meaning has remained pretty stable over thirty years, I found an interesting variant from the early days in an article on the cable industry. Communications Daily in 1984: “Many remain confident that [the cable] industry is . . . in a ‘win, win’ situation” regardless of whether a piece of legislation passed or not. Not “everyone wins,” but “I win either way.” That seems just as plausible, and just as sensible, as the accepted sense.

A book called “Getting to Yes” was published in 1981. Written by a couple of Harvard eggheads, it proved a very popular and durable guide to negotiation — the third edition was published less than five years ago. I haven’t determined if “win-win” actually appeared anywhere in the first edition, but the spirit of the thing breathed from every page. The authors emphasized resolving conflicts to mutual advantage whenever possible. Keep your cool, think about how the issues look from your adversary’s point of view, and look for answers that offer something to both sides. By 1984, the nation’s first master’s program in conflict intervention was established at George Mason University. This had to do with settling violent international disputes, rather than the smaller-scale conflicts that “win-win” usually covers — not that it couldn’t refer to the resolution of a war or comparable conflict. But regardless of the magnitude of the stage, this kind of negotiation embraces the principle that the purpose of bargaining is not that one combatant grind the other into the dirt.

This expression lends itself to a particular unsavory use due to its optimistic, reassuring character. It is often used by spokespersons for powerful corporations or the government to describe a policy change, regulatory effort, or private-public partnership. They trot out “win-win” in order to convince us that we all benefit as much as the massive impersonal institution benefits. Most of the time, that means we get a bone thrown to us that doesn’t cost the institution anything, while the institution gets just about everything it wants in return, no matter how harmful or costly the results. Just another straightforwardly Orwellian (and highly effective) misuse of the language. Not all wins are created equal, and you have to look very closely when a powerful organization invites you to accept its version of the new state of affairs.

A further note on origins: The first director of the conflict resolution program at George Mason (now known as S-CAR), a psychiatrist named Dr. Bryant Wedge, was also the first person recorded using “win-win” in LexisNexis, five years earlier. Perhaps the unheralded Dr. Wedge, an important advocate for peaceful resolution of disputes, deserves some credit for the popularity of this expression.

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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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