Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Words on a Wire

Stan Carey, a professional editor from Ireland, writes:

We think of balance as a good thing, associating it with poise, equilibrium, evenness and harmony, as stability in unpredictable circumstances or as a healthy mix of disparate elements. It's a versatile metaphor. We try to balance our lives by living a balanced lifestyle, holding balanced views and following, on balance, a balanced diet. We balance work and play, overtime and downtime, business and pleasure. Mostly business: we balance our books, accounts, loans, budgets and balance sheets.

If you lose your balance, you can always find it again (or claim to). This is rebalancing. It might seem like something you couldn't do too much of, but apparently you can. The word itself has become very popular recently, at least according to the crude graph below and the subjective evidence of my eyes and ears.

Balancing and rebalancing are common in economic policy at corporate and national levels. There is constant rebalancing of growth, power, trade, budgets, assets, and priorities. Most of all, there's rebalancing of economies and investment portfolios. Wikipedia says the latter means "bringing a portfolio of investments that has deviated away from one’s target asset allocation back into line." There's a more straightforward definition here. As far as I can tell, it reflects a desire to make as much money as possible.

On a large scale, such activity can require a rebalancing of the workforce. This might be an ordeal for affected workers and their families, but rebalancing makes it sound like something no well-balanced person would resist or condemn. No surprise then that the word is also popular in the context of rights and the law. A quick newspaper search showed recent hits for rebalancing rights, rebalancing the statute book, rebalancing the Human Rights Act, and rebalancing the relationship between citizen and state.

The happy connotations of balance and rebalance make them attractive as euphemisms. In Now That's What I Call Jargon, RTE broadcaster John Murray writes that rebalancing "tends to be trotted out when a company is selling a loss-making business in order to halt the drain on its finances." He notes that it "can also be used by companies that are laying off hundreds of employees but cannot bring themselves to say it in so many words." Tim Llewellyn, a writer and broadcaster formerly with the BBC, described balance as “the BBC’s crudely applied device for avoiding trouble."

Balance as a metaphor is grounded in our experience: human functioning depends on balance in physical and physiological ways. The first meaning of balance I learned as a child was the ability to not fall over as I stood up (or tried something more elaborate); this ability is vital to many sports. As kids we spin in circles for the fun of losing our balance. Inside us, balance is just as critical — without it we might become unbalanced. Our biochemical and psychological equilibriums are dynamic, complex and finely tuned; they depend on appropriate ratios between different hormones, habits, signals, systems, organs and unconscious strategies that can support or hinder one another.

We know that our bodies perform great balancing acts, but sometimes we need to be reminded, or encouraged to help. Many health and lifestyle companies, especially alternative health providers, promise to balance or rebalance certain connections they consider primary, such as those between mind, body and spirit, between the brain's hemispheres, the body's energies, yin and yang, and so on. One massage training centre describes rebalancing as "a unique psychosomatic body mind treatment system incorporating technical precision with an artistic meditative approach." Which is all very well, but whether it translates into a good massage is anyone's guess.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 21st 2010, 12:29 PM
Comment by: Sarah S.
I feel that my comments on this work should be balanced. On the one hand I was entertained and amused by Stan's wise words. On the other hand I cringed at the way rebalance can be hijacked. Now I think I may have vertigo.
Wednesday September 22nd 2010, 7:12 AM
Comment by: John S.
An interesting use of the visual thesaurus. I would like to see more attempts at demonstrating how this dazzling devise might contribute to writing (and understanding), other than serving as a backdrop for essays.
Thursday September 23rd 2010, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sarah: Thanks for your generous and balanced comments! Unfortunately, words with such positive connotations are always likely to invite cynical and euphemistic use.

John: That's a helpful suggestion — and an interesting variant spelling of device.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

We hear about a new entry in the "X-cation" trend from Stan Carey.
Stan muses on a special meaning of the word "kill" used in Ireland.
Which English word best describes what happens to air when it's heated by lightning?