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'Flatten' Down the Hatches!

Rob Kyff on

The mantra of public health experts during the current coronavirus pandemic has been, "Let's flatten the curve!" (My suggestion for a national motto promoting social distancing: "Let's go the distance!")

"Flatten the curve" refers to a line graph depicting two possible courses for the rate of active cases over time. One arc representing the rapid expansion scenario is a steep parabola; think camel hump. The arc representing the slower expansion scenario is a much more gradual parabola; think turtle shell.

Epidemiologists want to flatten the tall curve from a camel hump to a turtle shell so that active cases will be spread out over time and hospitals won't be overwhelmed all at once.

The term "flatten (or flattening) the curve" has been around for a surprisingly long time. A Google Ngram search shows that its first appearance came during the 1840s, when it presumably referred to curved objects such as ax handles and horseshoes.

Interestingly, "flatten the curve" shows a huge spike in use in 1918, which could be related to the Spanish flu outbreak that year. But, after searching every newspaper archive I could find, I discovered no references to the use of this term in connection with that pandemic.

"Curve" also features prominently in two catchphrases that went viral during the 1970s: "ahead of the curve" and "learning curve."

The former is believed to have originated with the aviation term "ahead of the power curve." Linguist Michael Quinion traces its first use in print to the July 1964 issue of Flying magazine.

 

"Staying (or keeping) ahead of the curve" became popular jargon during the 1970s, e.g., "Nixon and his top aides spoke of 'keeping ahead of the curve'" (Anchorage Daily News, May 22, 1974).

The first known citation for "learning curve" came in 1903, when a psychology journal reported that the acquisition of telegraphic language followed "a learning curve."

As linguist Ben Zimmer has noted, when the phrase "steep learning curve" first appeared during the 1970s, it originally had the positive meaning of "the rapid acquisition of knowledge," but it quickly acquired a more negative meaning of "an arduous learning process."

In an episode of "Downton Abbey," a series set during the early 1900s, the character Matthew Crawley says, "I've been on a steep learning curve since arriving at Downton." But there's no evidence of the use of this phrase before the 1970s. So, this is one "curve" that vigilant hunters of verbal anachronisms in "Downton Abbey" want to flatten.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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