short note: under the radar

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 27 07:46:13 UTC 2011

OED has "under the radar" grouped with other figurative expressions that
involve "radar".

In phrases in which the detection of something, or the relative amount of
> attention given to it, is indicated by whether it registers on a figurative
> radar, as below the radar, off the radar, on the radar, under the radar,
> etc.; cf. a blip on the radar (screen) at blip n.1 Additions a.
>> [1981    Washington Post 16 Apr. a18/1   Like some giant weapons system
>> that can come in under the radar, Janet Cooke's invention eluded detection
>> by the normal protective procedures and techniques that are designed to
>> catch‥more commonplace slides and lapses.]
I am a bit puzzled by the bracketed citation. It's not particularly
figurative and it does not point to the original usage, which goes back /at
least/ to the 1960s, although many of the ones I found all refer to "under
the radar screen". I suppose it combines the literal base for the expression
as a simile.
Popular Science. July 1960
SAC's New Weapong: Treetop. p. 110

> To avoid this deadly exposure, some of our big SAC planes are training to
> go in on the deck where they can zip in under the radar screens, pop up just
> before reaching the target, drop their hideous hydrogen eggs, and run for
> home.

A possibly earlier entry is more ambiguous date-wise--it's an 1983 re-print
of a 1953 military publication.
The Army Air Forces In World War II. Volume 5. New Imprint by the Office of
Air Force History. 1983 [Original publication date 1953. Copyright renewed
1981. Includes NEW preface.]
Iwo Jima. p. 582

> The early raids quickly dispelled any complacency about defenses,
> particularly since the enemy repeatedly slipped in under the radar screen—
> on the night of 27 November construction lights at Isley were still on when
> his planes struck!

But another pops up before 1981.
Mauve gloves & madmen, clutter & vine, and other stories, sketches, and
essays. By Tom Wolfe. 1976 [The individual piece might well have been
published earlier--copyright dates go back to 1967.]
> Rather than contend with that automated blind beast, some pilots prefer to
> come in low over the terrain in the eternal attempt to get in "*under the
> radar*." But what is it really, a strategic defense or a psychological
> defense?

 I'd be shocked if Tom Wolfe were responsible for this migration. But the
meaning here is not quite literal. The way it's used here, "under the radar"
means to avoid being detected and targeted by Surface-to-Air-Missiles
(SAMs)--not literally the same expression as "under the radar screen", but
still close. Internal reference in the story is 1967. But in all cases the
meaning is already figurative--it means "undetected".

There is an oddity here. The expression "below the radar" likely comes from
"below the radar beam" or "below the radar horizon"--both evident since the
invention of the radar. But there is no evidence of anything other than
"under the radar /screen/" over the same period. It was never literal! On
the other hand, "on the radar" nearly always refers to a screen, display or
picture--and nearly all pre-1980 cites use it that way, whether for
air-traffic radar, naval radar or police radar. The more contemporary
expression might be "[does not] register on the radar".


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