On May 30, 2014, this headline graced the Globe and Mail’s front page: Spin Doctor: Brazil Creates Flashy — But Still Accurate — Soccer Ball.
The headline writer put a new spin on spin doctor, a term usually associated with politics not sports. This particular story, written by science reporter, Ivan Semeniuk, involved the aerodynamics of soccer balls. Curiously, that headline writer took spin and its many other modern manifestations pretty close to a much earlier meaning — a meaning related to sports.
Spin, itself, is a far older word, first recorded in 1511 in reference to insect activity — spinning webs and silk. Since then, it has assumed at least 13 further meanings including, “to make yarn from wool fleece,” and, “to twirl around.” There are also several slang usages.
Spin shows up in sports — in cricket, fishing, baseball and billiards. It’s also found in the vocabulary of sheet metal production.
Informal usage includes, “to spin a yarn,” “to go for a spin,” “to spin one’s wheels.”
But let’s look at slang.
By 1863, “to spin” a political candidate was to reject him. In modern slang, spin can mean, “to play a recording,” and, “to sway public opinion by interpreting someone’s words.” We also have, “to spin off” (to create something from something else, as a new company), and, “to spin out” (to prolong).
To spin, meaning to put an interpretation on a message, was first heard about 1950. American Slang suggests this meaning grew from the idea of putting a spin on a baseball or billiard ball to produce a deviant track rather than a straight one. So, to put a spin on a politician’s words is related to “throwing a curve.”
It didn’t take long for this usage to spin off new meanings. By mid-1980, we were hearing of spin control and spin doctors.
Spin control is, “the subtle art of massaging reporters’ minds after the event has taken place” (American Slang). It’s the attempt by people in the headlines, especially politicians, to ensure favourable interpretation of their words and actions.
A spin doctor (spinmeister) tries to control interpretation. For an adviser, agent or public relations practitioner, his job is to slant a story.
Spin doctor emerges from the 1950s slang for the verb, to spin, meaning “to deceive.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang suggests this idea comes from, “to spin a yarn.” Nautical in origin, this early 19th-century phrase refers to a sailor’s long, drawn-out stories of adventure.
In 1986, William Saffire wrote, “As a noun, spin has come to mean ‘twist’ or ‘interpretation.’” He added, “When a pitcher puts a spin on a baseball, he causes it to curve, and when we put our own spin on a story; we angle it to suit our interests.”
Spin doctor first appeared in print in a New York Times editorial on October 21, 1984: “Tonight ... men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate among reporters ... They won’t be just press agents ... They’ll be Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates.”
Spin is Teutonic. It came unchanged into Old
English as spinnen (to spin).