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The meaning and origin of the expression: Spin doctor

Spin doctor

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Spin doctor'?

A 'spin doctor' is a political press agent or publicist employed to promote a favourable interpretation of events to journalists.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Spin doctor'?

This expression originated in America and came about during the 1980s, when the need for 'sound bites' became pressing enough to require a new class of publicist to provide them. Many of the early citations of the phrase in print refer to the political campaigns of Ronald Reagan. The earliest printed references are from that period, For example, this from The New York Times, October 1984:

"A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won't be just press agents trying to impart a favourable spin to a routine release. They'll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates."

Spin, without the accompanying doctor, had begun to be used in a political and promotional context in the late 1970s; for example, in the Guardian Weekly, January 1978:

"The CIA can be an excellent source [of information], though, like every other, its offerings must be weighed for factuality and spin."

So, why 'spin'? Well, there are two candidates (and another at the end which may blow the other two out of the water, so to speak). The first theory is that it relates to sailors and other storytellers spinning yarns. Given a phrase in the language like 'spin a yarn', we might expect to assume that a yarn was a tall tale and that the tellers spun it out. That's not quite right though. Until 'spinning a yarn' was coined, yarn was just thread. The phrase was coined as an entity, just meaning 'tell a tale'. That came about in the early 19th century and was first written down in James Hardy Vaux's A new and comprehensive vocabulary of the flash language, in 1812:

"Yarning or spinning a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other."

From there it is a small step for the people employed to weave reports of factual events into palatable stories to be called 'spin doctors'.

The second explanation of 'spin' is that it refers to the spin that sports-people use in cricket, snooker, baseball etc., in which a ball is deviated from its natural course and directed to the left or right.

A third explanation, which doesn't seek to explain 'spin' alone but which could be the source of 'spin doctor' as a complete expression, is that is derived from the name of a fisherman's lure.

Spin doctorSpinning metal tags are commonly used as bait to attract predator fish and are known as spinners. A particular spinner, called a Spin Doctor, was on sale in the USA in the 1960s and was often referred to in the press, as in the above advert in the Kingston Daily, May 1964. It is perfectly plausible that whoever coined the term 'spin doctor' to refer to marketing types got the name from the lure. Sadly, there's no clear evidence of that and, as is always the case in etymology, plausibility isn't enough.

So, the jury is out. The origin of 'spin doctor' probably lies in the list of three above but at this point we don't know which.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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