The Grammarphobia Blog

Vacuum battles

Q: Is “vacuum power” or “power vacuum” the right way to refer to the absence of an authority figure in the workplace?

A: It’s “power vacuum” when you’re using the expression in a political, business, or similar sense. It’s “vacuum power” when you mean the sucking ability of a Hoover, a Eureka, or an Electrolux.

The political usage first appeared in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in a 1941 issue of the Journal of Politics.

Here’s the quotation: “The world of the Eastern European minor powers was, politically speaking, a power-vacuum which depended for its continued existence on a balance of the surrounding great powers.”

The noun “vacuum,” meaning an empty space, first appeared in print in the 16th century in the religious writings of Thomas Cranmer, an Archbishop of Canterbury who was executed for heresy.

“Naturall reason abhorreth vacuum,” he wrote, “that is to say, that there shoulde be any emptye place, wherin no substance shoulde be.”

Speaking of which, I’ve discovered an “emptye place” in the OED that needs filling: There’s no published reference for the expression “vacuum power.”

The noun itself, which comes from the Latin vacuum (meaning empty), has been used in reference to the electrical floor cleaner since the early 20th century.

Here’s an OED citation from a 1907 issue of Yesterday’s Shopping: “The ‘Witch’ Dust Extractor is a vacuum cleaner suitable alike for carpets, upholstery, clothing, &c.”

I know of a few dust balls in need of extraction!

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.