[Lexicog] Spin doctor

John Roberts dr_john_roberts at SIL.ORG
Sun May 23 09:47:54 UTC 2004

Rudy Troike said:

> The metaphorical sense of "put a [positive or negative] spin" on some
> piece of news/information has been around for quite awhile. But I recall
> some discussions on network TV a decade or so ago after the Republican
> party held its nominating convention in New Orleans (I think when the
> Bush-Quayle ticket was nominated) about the emergence during the
> convention of the term "spin doctor", which was (folk?-)etymologized as
> being formed on the analogy of "voodoo doctor", a common practitioner in
> New Orleans.

>From John Roberts:
Since the orgin and meaning of "spin doctor" continues to be a live issue on
this list I pulled the following off the internet. For myself, I think we
have "spun" this issue enough:
The phrase spin doctor, as a name for those consummate practioners of spin
control, found coinage in the language in the mid-1980's, during the decade
that brought us couch potato, soundbite, and mallrat. They are so named for
their ability to put the right 'spin,' or slant, on an event.

One of the earliest print citations of spin doctor appeared in an October
1984 New York Times article following the Reagan/Mondale debate, and a
helpful definition is contained therein: "A dozen men in good suits and
women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting
confident opinions. They won't be just press agents trying to impart a
favorable spin to a routine release. They'll be Spin Doctors, senior
advisors to the candidates." No ordinary politicians' flaks, these are
spinmeisters, spin masters, sultans of spin. Whereas a flak (short for
flak-catcher, or person who deflects adverse publicity from his or her
employer) might hope merely to turn already negative publicity to advantage,
the spin doctor attempts to prevent any negative criticism from ever
reaching the public. In their own terms, they do this by "getting ahead of
the story," by applying spin to a story like a pool sharp to a cue ball.

Sporting metaphors such as that, in fact, are what are most often cited as
the origin of the 'spin' in spin control and spin doctor. 'Topspin' is what
you put on a baseball, or a golfball, or cueball, in order to control the
direction of the ball. In dice, you put 'spin' on the dice in order to give
the appearance that they've been fairly thrown, while the faces you want
remain on top the whole time. As for the 'doctor' part of the compound, one
can point to any of several figurative senses which might apply: from the
relatively benign 'to revise, alter, or adapt,' to the more damaging 'tamper
with,' to the out and out 'falsify.'

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