Word Watch

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.

deep-background private placement the covert release of potentially damaging but ultimately insuppressible information by a highly placed anonymous source to a single, carefully chosen reporter, so that the information does as little damage as possible: "In addition to the document dumps, our second device for getting bad stories written early and accurately was the so-called 'deep-background private placement'" (Lanny J. Davis, Truth to Tell: Notes From My White House Education).

BACKGROUND: Davis, a special counsel to President Bill Clinton from December of 1996 through January of 1998, used deep-background private placement -- a rarefied form of spin, in which the aim is to control the treatment of revelations that cannot simply be squelched -- sparingly. According to Davis, selection of the reporter is crucial. Good choices are reporters who work for wire services (major newspapers tend to resist putting wire-service stories on the front page) or for West Coast papers (the large East Coast dailies often downplay stories broken by out-of-towners). Timing is also important, and a leaker may negotiate to have the story released on a Saturday, when its impact will be muted.

NEW nonexplosive warfare: "Once again we have found it necessary to call on our armed forces to limit the power and ambition of Saddam Hussein's military machine.... [But] a longer term struggle is ... beginning. It is so novel, it warrants ... a new acronym. My proposed acronym is NEW -- nonexplosive warfare" (Richard Danzig in The New York Times).
BACKGROUND: When Danzig proposed this coinage, in an op-ed piece last November, he had just been named Secretary of the Navy. As he explains it, NEW threatens the United States with two types of "viruses" -- biological and high-tech -- which can often be overcome on the battlefield but are difficult to counter if unleashed against civilian targets. Danzig argues that these viruses are best considered "weapons of mass disruption," because they are likely to be used as much to engender panic and confusion as to sow widespread destruction. The NEW threat is particularly ominous in that biological and computer viruses can be created relatively cheaply, in obscure locations, and deployed by a single aircraft in the one case or at the click of a mouse in the other.

ostension a process by which people act out so-called urban myths or other contemporary apocryphal stories, in some cases because they believe them -- thus making the myths real: "Even though the ... rumor ['Fear May 10,' scrawled on some Maryland public school lockers] is so inexplicit, some officials ... worried that it [might] give someone the idea to act on it -- a phenomenon called ostension(Washington Post).
BACKGROUND: This is a relatively new sense of a word that is rooted in the Latin verb ostendere (to show). Ostension first appeared in English in 1474, meaning simply "a manifestation." An ecclesiastical sense (the elevation of the Eucharistic elements before the eyes of a congregation) emerged in 1607. In 1950 a meaning arose relating to philosophy and logic (the explanation of a word by indicating one or more objects to which it applies). Examples of the newest sense of the word include the behavior of teenagers who have enacted what was originally a myth about gang members' driving at night without headlights and shooting at motorists who flash their lights, and the efforts of people to collect metal pop tabs from cans because they have heard that charities recycle them for cash. Sociologists attribute the rapid proliferation of such myths in large part to electronic communications.

philosopause a point at which a researcher, weary of or frustrated by rigorous laboratory-based science, begins to look for nonscientific, philosophical explanations instead: "Too many of the characters [in John Horgan's book The End of Science] have entered the phase of their career that has been called 'the philosopause.' They have retired from the university or grown bored with lab work, and so have taken up professional cogitation" (Natalie Angier in The New York Times).
BACKGROUND: This term, which is perhaps loosely derived from "menopause," was originally used specifically for neuroscientists, some of whom have tended, as they've grown older, to abandon science-based attempts to map the workings of the brain and have turned instead to more general speculations about the nature of consciousness. Owing largely to advances in artificial intelligence, molecular genetics, psychopharmacology, and brain imaging, in recent years these distinct approaches have been joined in an endeavor known as neurophilosophy -- mitigating, perhaps, the impulse for neuroscientists to experience a philosopause. The term seems, however, to be taking on a new, broader life, as suggested by the citation above, in which it is applied to scientists of all stripes.

Anne H. Soukhanov is the executive editor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.

Illustration by Michael C. Witte.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Word Watch - 99.08; Volume 284, No. 2; page 96.