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A journey through spin

By Lynda Mugglestone


Spin is one of those words which could perhaps now do with a bit of ‘spin’ in its own right. From its beginnings in the idea of honest labour and toil (in terms of etymology, spin descends from the spinning of fabric or thread), it has come to suggest the twisting of words rather than fibres – a verbal untrustworthiness intended to deceive and disguise. Often associated with newspapers and politicians, to use spin is to manipulate meaning, to twist truth for particular ends – usually with the aim of persuading readers or listeners that things are other than they are. As in idioms such as to put a ‘positive spin on something’ – or a ‘negative spin on something’ – one line of meaning is concealed, while another – at least intentionally – takes its place. Spin is language which, for whatever reason, has designs on us.

Spin on the move: from cricket to spin doctors

Taking the long view of language history, it’s clear that meanings of this kind are, in fact, relatively recent. As the Oxford English Dictionary confirms, this sense of spin emerges only in the later 1970s, originally in the context of American politics. A report in the Washington Post in 1977, for example, chose to describe a politician as ‘lobbying members of the committee on behalf of things he thinks are good, of putting his own philosophical ‘spin’ on options’. We can track its history from early uses in which spin is linked to the idea of rapid physical movement, to later uses – as in cricket – in which ‘spin’ is a twisting motion applied to a ball. In this light, the article in the Washington Post simply reveals the verbal equivalent of the spin-bowler – information is being pitched in a particular way. ‘Spin’ was clearly on the move, and other new forms – the spin doctor and the spinmeister – quickly followed in its wake.

Earlier lexicography and the art of spin

As we might expect, modern dictionaries present the history of spin entirely without spin. We expect dictionaries to tell us ‘the meaning’, not a particular version of it – the bias which spin gives is, we assume, entirely out place. However, this was not always that case, and the history of dictionaries can provide some interesting counter-examples. Fox-hunter, for instance, gets a decidedly negative spin in Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 (‘A man whose chief ambition is to shew his bravery in hunting foxes’) while Johnson’s choice of definition for oats reveals a celebrated example of bias of a different kind (‘A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’). If we look at later dictionaries, we can also often find examples of meanings being slanted in particular ways. For the American lexicographer Noah Webster, the definition of potato can be used as an example of divine benevolence (‘one of the greatest blessings bestowed on man by the Creator’). In the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (published between 1884-1928) Victorian resistance to ideas of female emancipation clearly lurks in the definition given for the ‘emancipatress’ (‘A female emancipator; one who advocates the ‘emancipation’ of her sex’). The scare quotes around ‘emancipation’ here offer an effective form of negative ‘spin’ – deftly removing women from ideas of genuine emancipation as seen in Victorian England. Of course, this is precisely the kind of definition that is changed and updated as part of the ongoing revision of the OED. An apt example can be seen in the revised definition for prostitution. It now reads ‘the practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment’, whereas the first edition defined it rather more negatively and subjectively – ‘the offering of the body to indiscriminate lewdness’.

If spin in its modern sense is new, language history – in dictionaries as well as outside them – reveals that the practice is very old indeed. Dictionaries, as in these examples, can therefore often tell stories which reveal particular social and cultural histories. They can, as a result, offer an interesting slant on the times in which they were used, as well as the attitudes of those who wrote them. Modern dictionaries, of course, strive to tell the facts as they are, and to remain as neutral as possible. If ‘spin’ gets an extended entry in line with its on-going changes of sense, it’s also now firmly removed from dictionary practice on the principle that the predilections of the individual lexicographer should not be allowed to shine through – however great the temptation.

Lynda Mugglestone is Professor of the History of English at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. She has written widely on a range of aspects of language, culture, and the history of dictionaries. Her latest book is Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction. This post also appears on the OxfordWords blog.

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