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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: George Bush

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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stick a fork in him, he’s done

(2000’s | journalese | “he’s dead in the water,” “his goose is cooked,” “(you can) forget about him” “it’s (all) over”)

One of those top-down terms, like “smartest guy in the room.” It owes its celebrity to the fact that it is used by prominent people about prominent people, so we all have to know what it means even if we seldom use it in our humdrum everyday lives.

From the earliest sightings in the late eighties until now, this phrase has most readily been directed at politicians or athletes. Ann Richards, then governor of Texas, seems to have been responsible for the first widely-noticed use of “stick a fork in him, he’s done” in her dismissal of George Bush’s candidacy in October 1992, a few weeks before the election. (The earliest I found in LexisNexis dated from 1987 in Spin magazine, and it had nothing to do with politics.) Other political figures who felt the lash: Fidel Castro, Bob Dole (1996), Hillary Clinton (2008), and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of. The phrase seemed poised to take off in 1996, the second election in a row for which the Republicans put up a lackluster candidate. Like “soccer mom,” it looked ready to jump into the mainstream. Yet LexisNexis coughs up one solitary example between the end of 1996 and 2000. As you might expect, the phrase turns up more often in election years, and sportswriters have grown more fond of it over time, but it has not become as frequently used as many other expressions I have considered.

By definition, the phrase applies to losers. It’s a way to call someone a loser without using the word, one reason politicians like it (see also “humbled,” “unintended consequences” and “Joe Sixpack“). It is used only when it is clear that not only is the target hopelessly behind in the contest, he can’t possibly catch up. Dewey would not have used it against Truman in 1948 because the race never got lopsided enough. Not only does the phrase carry an unmistakable stamp of finality, it crows and gloats as well. It is not at all unusual for the phrase to carry a healthy dose of contempt.

Chronologically, “stick a fork in him” follows two other pithy dismissals (say that five times fast), “he’s history” and “he’s toast.” Actually, both of those expressions feel most comfortable in the second person, but they work in the third (very unusual in the first person, however). “You’re history” came along first; I remember learning it during my freshman year in college from my more sophisticated classmates. “You’re toast” came in a few years later. Like “stick a fork in him,” (and “goose is cooked”), it relies on a culinary vehicle. Because if it’s not dead when you start cooking it, it is by the time you’re done. Both of these vigorous expressions share the note of finality, and the note of extreme prejudice, that we noted above in “stick a fork in him.” Notably, the latter expression cannot be used in the second person, but it can be used in the first and is most commonly used in third person. So in pronominal terms, it complements “you’re history” rather neatly.

The reason you put a fork in a roast is to determine whether it is sufficiently cooked. But a canny politician uses the expression only when he knows his opponent is completely done. You don’t do it to find something out, you do it for spite — not unlike “twist the knife.” Utensils make for treacherous figures of speech.

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