W Brewer brewerwa at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 16 07:43:56 UTC 2013

As I read thru VS's fascinating message, the German word for vacuum cleaner
flashed in my mind, der Staubsauger, lit. <dust-sucker>. NSA vacuuming
 gets the dirt on people. Incidentally picking up dog fur, Cheerios, and
coins under sofa cushions.

On Sun, Jun 16, 2013 at 1:25 PM, Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at>wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      vacuum
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> 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,
> > 唎f, 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.
> VS-)
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