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Re: Spiral out of control

Posted by Smokey Stover on September 04, 2008 at 15:37

In Reply to: Re: Spiral out of control posted by RRC on September 04, 2008 at 12:51:

: : Where does the term "spiral out of control" come from? From my understanding, the faster something spins the more in control it is (like spinning tops, bullets, or footballs).

: Spiralling (moving in a spiral - a circular pattern of geometrically increasing diameter) is not at all the same thing as spinning. That said, people do say spinning out of control as well. As your example of a stable rapidly spinning top winds down, the gyroscope effect fades and it does go all over the place wildly - slow spinning is still spinning.
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Spinning out of control is not something one usually says of, say, a football or a bullet, since the spin is in those cases an important means of control. One can, of course, spin out of control, especially if you are driving a car on an icy road. Professional drivers sometimes use the term "spin out" to indicate a sort of rotary change of direction while skidding around uncontrollably. Sometimes, but not always, the vehicle will actually spin.

Spiraling out of control is a common metaphor used in talking about trade or economic conditions, as when costs and prices "spiral out of control." The spiral is usually upwards, although there can be a downward spiral of profits or productivity.

It might be useful to see what the Oxford English Dictionary thinks "out of control" means.

s.v. "out-of-control" (adj.), they give this example:

"1943 Jrnl. Amer. Statist. Assoc. 38 231 Extreme irregularity in work-flow shows up as an *out-of-control point on the range chart."

But why "spiral"? I imagine that some particular economic writer, in reference to inflationary periods, especially during or after World War II (that is, following the Great Depression), found it a useful figure of speech for a general and gradual, but uncontrolled, rise, with the figure of a spiral suggesting the way an airplane might achieve altitude or a road might wind round a mountain to get to the top, except for the out-of-control issue. In any event, it captured the imagination of other writers for the same reason, and has retained its utility in economic writing. Spirals in general do not have any obvious terminus, so it's easy to imagine them as being out of control.

A spiral does not have to have increases or changes in the radius of the rotational movement. A spiral binding, for instance, is not out of control at all. But this is not the kind of spiral that we first think of. At least in my case, the word spiral tends to convey the idea of an increasing radius for the circular motion.

One of the examples cited in the OED describes an actual spiral, thus:

"1979 Nature 14 June 622/1 Viscous drag on the planet's orbital motion would then lead to a spiralling into the stellar core." That sounds rather out-of-control, but when one is referring to the movements of stellar bodies, control by humans is not an issue.

The emphasis I have given to economic writing does not mean that the metaphor is applied only in this field. You might easily find expressions like, "His irregular behavior kept getting worse, spiraling out of control until he had to be hospitalized for his own safety."
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