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My spin on spin

by Mellissa Martinez

Have you ever wondered what a spider, a disc jockey, a cyclist and a politician all have in common? Neither have I, but that didn’t stop me from recently coming to the realization that they all spin!

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘spin’ has well over 20 definitions. It can be used as a transitive verb (spin a top), an intransitive verb (my head is spinning), a noun (let’s go for a spin), and in idioms such as in a spin, spin out of control, spin on one’s heel, and spin in the grave.

The verb, which led to the noun, came from Old English spinnan meaning ‘draw out and twist fibers into thread.’ ‘Spin’ originally referred to the act of weaving wool, cotton or thread together into cloth. Typically considered women’s work, in the 1600s, the term ‘spinster’ was the name given to a female weaver.

By the 1900s it came to mean an unmarried woman beyond the age of landing a husband. Thankfully for those 28-year olds, they could fall back on their cloth-making skills!

The circular motion of weaving led to other ‘spin’ uses, which have to do with whirling (spin around, spin a record, spin reel). Biking as an indoor exercise wasn’t called spinning until the late 1980s when a well-known cyclist decided to fill a New York exercise room with bikes and officially trademark the name. In other words, those of us pumping away on the stationary bikes in the 1970s with the seesaw motion handles may have been spinning our wheels but we weren’t actually ‘spinning.’

Spinning one’s wheels, which means to ‘put forth effort and get no result’ came about in the mid 1900s most likely in reference to a car getting stuck in the snow. Around the same time, the word took a political turn when expressions such as put a spin on something, spin a tale, spin control and spin doctor became popular. These versions all refer to the veracity (or lack thereof) of the retelling of a story. This negative use of ‘spin’ began with a sailing term in the 1800s, which meant ‘deceive.’ When a sailor exaggerated his adventures, exploits and escapes, it was called ‘yarning’ or ‘spinning a yarn.’

The expression ‘spin doctor’ was first used in a New York Times editorial following the Reagan-Mondale debate of 1984, which read, “seconds after the Reagan-Mondale debate ends, a bazaar will suddenly materialize in the press room...they won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors.”

Just a few years later, linguist William Safire stated that the expression ‘spin doctor’ was a “locution that we must keep our eyes on in the 1988 election.”

By this time, the moniker referred to a senior political spokesperson, who attempted to influence reporters’ minds before they wrote about an event. He or she typically had one goal—to promote a particular interpretation of events or comments to journalists.

Today, social science research indicates that we are less fooled by spin. We often have access to an event as it occurs, and real-time Twitter feed and fact checking sites offer us several competing opinions to consider.

Recent notable spins include Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and Rudy Giuliani’s take on Donald Trump evading taxes: “The man’s a genius. He knows how to operate the tax code to the benefit of the people he’s serving.”

Another common spin made by many presidents over the years is the statement “mistakes were made.” The passive voice clearly indicates that someone else—not the president—made them.

Here in Claremont, as the new city council members prepare to take their seats, we will have some fresh spins to consider. Perhaps we’ll hear a positive spin on the parking conundrum or a fresh spin on the budget.

As long as our city council manages to avoid spinning tales or spinning out of control, I suspect we will all be curious to hear what they have to say and how they choose to say it.