Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Happy Landings on the "Glide Path"

President-Elect Obama says we're "now on a glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq." He also says we're "on a glide path for long-term sustainable economic growth." What's up with all the gliding?

Obama used the line about the "glide path to reduce our forces in Iraq" in a Dec. 1 press conference. Then he talked about the economic "glide path" when he appeared on "Meet the Press" on Dec. 7. So that's two "glide paths" in less than a week for two different policy areas. Is this a verbal tic of the soon-to-be president, akin to New York Mayor Bloomberg overusing the word unconscionable? If it is, Obama's hardly alone: a check of the Congressional Record finds nearly 300 instances of "glide path" being used on the House and Senate floors since 1985. (And that's not including all the committee hearings, which were no doubt glide-y too.)

In its literal sense, as the Visual Thesaurus explains, glide path means "the final path followed by an aircraft as it is landing." The path is usually indicated to the pilot by means of a radio beam. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations back to 1936 and suggests it might be a loan translation from German Gleitweg. Synonyms in the VT wordmap include approach path and glide slope, but neither of these have caught on in the metaphorical sense in which Obama and other politicians have used glide path.

Early extensions of glide path for things beyond airplanes tended to have to do with straightening out the federal economy, much like Obama's "Meet The Press" usage. In June 1973, when the American economy was in a precarious state, Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur F. Burns was quoted by Barron's as saying that "it is possible to keep the economy from overheating, and guide it into a 'glide path' of moderate sustainable economic expansion." Two months later Leonard Silk built on the metaphor in the New York Times: "Keeping the economy on the right glide path for a soft landing will require strong nerves and quick reflexes." In financial terms, a "soft landing" is obviously preferable to that other aviation metaphor: a crash.

When the glide path metaphor is transferred to economics, I think, it doesn't quite... fly. Even if the economy is being steered to a "soft landing," it's still going down, right? Wouldn't we want to get that plane moving upwards, or at least staying level? But the literal idea of coming in for a landing gets a bit lost when the expression is used figuratively. It's sort of like that other aero-financial term in the news: bailout. If a pilot bails out of a plane, that plane is still in big trouble. (And don't get me started on golden parachutes. Why the heck would you want a parachute made of gold?)

In any case, once "glide path" was untethered from its strict aeronautical sense, it could be applied to all sorts of other happy pathways that political and financial leaders would like to chart out. Though folks like longtime Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan have often used the term for optimistic budgetary projections (e.g., "putting the nation on a glide path toward a balanced budget"), the term came to be used for the personal trajectories of individual politicians too. So in May 1991, the New York Times reported that Dick Gephardt was unlikely to seek the following year's Democratic presidential nomination because "as House majority leader, Mr. Gephardt is on a glide path to the speakership." (Gephardt didn't run in '92, but he didn't get to be Speaker either.) Over the course of the 1992 race, pundits frequently weighed in on whether Bill Clinton was on a "glide path" to his party's nomination, and then whether he could continue on that path all the way to the presidency.

Clinton hit some turbulence during that election season, of course, but he was able to straighten out and fly right. It's fitting that an agile politician like Clinton (derided by his critics as "Slick Willie") would be the one to take the "glide" metaphor to new heights — or new lows, depending on your perspective. Obama's regarded as a smooth operator too, but we'll have to wait and see just how smoothly his current "glide paths" go.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 9th 2008, 1:21 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I think "bail-out," when used in this metaphorical sense, has more to do with the idea of bailing water out of a boat than with bailing out of a plane. The latter imagine doesn't work well, for the reasons cited, but the former one — of trying to keep a boat from sinking — works perfectly.
Tuesday December 9th 2008, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
"Glide path" is a great phrase in that it paints a picture that we're all aware of, and all comfortable with. As a conceptual metaphor, it creates a cognitive linkage with a process that is assuring, is going according to plan, and has an end-state that -- while it hasn't actually happened yet -- is expected to happen without fuss or issue.

It occurs me to that "glide path" can be used to describe any process or initiative that is in progress (not just economic or political) that requires a message that is reassuring, indicates motion/progress, and has an understood and desirable resolution. (Heck - I might start using it to describe my projects at work!)

The question is: is there a tipping point of over-usage? Will at some point people catch on to what Obama is doing with his (intentional or not) linguistic mesmerizing?

This is actually not so different than the many conceptual metaphors and symbolic linkages that the Bush administration rolled out over the past eight years. And I would argue that they were just as effective in their ability to lull people out of state of skepticism or 'devil's advocacy' -- thereby providing the administration with more free reign over their agenda.

It's not surprising that many powerful political leaders have mastered the art of utilizing (and, at their worst, manipulating) symbolic linkages to get people to think a certain way. What is surprising to me is the apparent lack of tools we have as a people to effectively nullify these weapons of mass coercion.
Wednesday December 10th 2008, 1:13 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
Jon D.'s comment is insightful, and I can vouch for the fact that it must be true, because even though I had never heard the phrase "glide path" before, I intuitively perceived all the connations that Jon lists. It is those almost subconscious connections that can be so powerful in political rhetoric (for better or worse).

I'm reminded of an earlier discussion in this column about the phrase "measuring for drapes." It's innocuous on its face, but the implications when used in a political context are clearly attempting to manipulate the hearer's perceptions negatively against the measurer.
Wednesday December 10th 2008, 4:00 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
Our president-elect's use of particular words is providing plenty of opportunities for discussion here. Did Visual Thesaurus provide similar insight on Mr. Bush's "creative" use of language? If so, I'm sorry I missed it.

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Following the tricky history of the verb "bail out" and the noun "bailout."
Was Obama using an oxymoron when he spoke of "deliberate haste"?
New York's Mayor Bloomberg has a penchant for "unconscionable."