The Grammarphobia Blog

Spinning out of control

Q: These days we hear a lot of people say the financial markets could “spin out of control.” Why do things “spin” out of control, as opposed to “run” or “jump” out of control? What is the origin of this phrase?

A: The verb of choice to use with “out of control” certainly does seem to be “spin.” I had more than 800,000 hits on Google for versions of the phrase “spin out of control.”

Clearly, there are alternatives. A search for “out of control” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes up with these citations: “balloon out of control” (1988); “get out of control” (1942); “swerved out of control” (1963); “surge out of control” (1979); “spiraling out of control” (2000), and “slide out of control” (2000).

Also, “skidded out of control” (2000); “ran out of control” (1971); “raged out of control” (2002); “acting out of control” (1994); “went out of control” (1959); “drop out of control into a whirling dive” (1961, said of an aircraft); “tumbling out of control” (1975); and of course “spin out of control” (2004).

The dates given aren’t necessarily for the first uses of those expressions. The earliest published reference in the New York Times archive for a version of “spin out of control” is from a Jan. 7, 1981, Associated Press article about rioting in Miami: ”The windshield was smashed and the car spun out of control, hitting Shanreka and a pedestrian, Albert Nelson, 75.”

The earliest reference I see in the OED that includes “spin” and “control” in the same sentence is this one, from a July 1914 issue of Aeroplane magazine: “If a ‘scout’ started to spin round its own nose it would never come into control again.”

Interestingly, it would seem from the OED that “spin out of control” could be considered redundant. The entry for “spin out” (1954) describes the verb phrase as North American slang meaning “of a vehicle: to skid round out of control.”

The noun “spin” in the political sense (manipulation of public perception of an event or situation) apparently came along in the 1970s.

The OED‘s first published citation is from the Guardian newspaper in January 1978: “The CIA can be an excellent source [of information], though, like every other, its offerings must be weighed for factuality and spin.”

And here’s a citation from the Washington Post in March 1979: “American spokesman Jody Powell gave a press briefing and put a negative spin on the talks.”

The OED dates “spin doctor” from 1984 and “spinmeister” from 1986, though it has no entry for “spin control.”

But John and Adele Algeo, writing in the fall 1988 issue of the journal American Speech, reported finding “spin control” in this quote from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Nov. 7, 1987): “In political parlance, it is called ‘spin control’ – a campaign’s attempt to influence reporters’ interpretations of an event.”

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.