Word of the Week – spinmeister

The term spinmeister, also known as the spin doctor, arose in the 1990s, meaning the one who provides a favorable slant to an item of news or a potentially unpopular policy. Meister is a suffix suggesting expertise, frequently ironic, derived from the German for master. Different origins are given for of this use of spin. Wikipedia cites the old American expression, “to spin a yarn,” sailors whiling away their time on board spinning thread and telling tall tales. But Collins Dictionary suggests the spin given to a ball in various sports to make it go in the desired direction. That explanation sounds more like it.

In politics it’s useful to be able to address one constituency without alienating the other. Martin Michael Lomasney, a Boston ward boss, gets the credit for this advice: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”

Or, you could speak in code, which brings us to the dog whistle, a term for a political slogan that conveys a controversial secondary message to a targeted subgroup. Example: to a subset of voters, welfare means race. According to William Safire, in the 1980s opinion pollsters used the analogy to the high frequency whistle heard by dogs but not by humans when they noticed that subtle differences in the wording of a question sometimes produced remarkably different results. Respondents heard something in the question that the researchers didn’t.

These days, many political messages aren’t that subtle. Conspicuous misstatements are denounced as blatant, but also as flagrant, a word with a slightly different meaning.

According to my old standard, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, blatant originally related to sound, so Roget’s Thesaurus offers synonyms such as obtrusive and blaring. Flagrant has more of a moral implication, as in “flagrant disregard for democratic principles.” Roget’s lists synonyms like shameless, immodest and scandalous. Blatant may derive from a Scots’ term for “bleating” and flagrant from a French term for “blazing.”

I’d love to find a place in a novel for that ringing phrase “in flagrante delicto,” derived from the Latin meaning, “caught in the act” of a misdeed, or, in legal cases, sexual activity. But it doesn’t really apply to a bald-faced lie.