Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 16 05:25:54 UTC 2013

In the current discussion of NSA data collection, one expression that
pops up repeatedly is vacuum[ing] data--a reference to NSA collecting
all data (usually "metadata" related to phone calls, but sometimes
implying indiscriminate recording of all communications of a particular
type). This is pervasive in the news and I'm not going to track down
individual cases (this applies to print articles as much as TV
discussions). The problem is, this is so hyperbolic that no dictionary
even approaches this particular meaning. For one, virtually every
dictionary definition for the verb "vacuum" starts with the word
"clean". A couple of diversions include "to treat with any vacuum
device, as a vacuum dryer" ( 2013) and "of or relating
to a vacuum device or system" (MWOLD). Plus there is a
transitive/intransitive distinction between using a vacuum cleaner and
treating something with a vacuum cleaner.

None of these approach the meaning even remotely. adds
another definition from AH Medical Dictionary (Stedman's), but it lacks
a verb entry. Only one on-line dictionary mentioned liposuction as a
potential context for the verb "vacuum", but when I tried to find it a
second time, I could not.

OED is not helpful. Not only does it only list the transitive version
(with a passing reference "occas. intr. for pass.", but the indirect
reference to "fig. and absol." is hard to decipher.

There is one example that appears to be relevant:

> 1961 Time (Atlantic ed.) 20 Jan. 17 Her retentive mind vacuums odd
> details from the newspapers.

But that appears to be more of an oversight than an intent. The other
figurative use does relate to the base meaning "to clean":

> 1980 Daily Tel. 6 Feb. 18 Toads are hungry creatures: no-one better to
> vacuum a garden of slugs and other pests.

Here's the problem. I would describe the base meaning as "to clean by
means of partial vacuum or suction", with a secondary meaning "to pick
up all items of some kind, leaving nothing behind". But the Time use
above and the current usage have nothing to do with the base "to clean".
The issue is collecting all data for some purpose (related to my
secondary meaning), but, quite obviously, the data (or "odd details")
are not actually removed. They are merely duplicated thoroughly in the
collection process. An even more descriptive translation would suggest
"indiscriminate collection [of everything]".

In fact, the closest OED verb that matches this meaning appears to be
suck v. 5. with an additional modifier "completely":

> 5. To derive or extract (information, comfort, profit, etc.) from,
> †of, or out of. (Cf. 2.)

Also to suck out 1.:

> 1. trans. To draw out or extract by or as by suction. Also in fig.
> context.


The American Dialect Society -

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