Three-Cornered Cliché

by Mary Jackson (December 2008) 


Robert Stacy McCain (“The Other McCain”) has a piece called The Triangulation of Hope.  I looked at it only to remind myself what, if anything, “triangulation” means. “Remind myself” is not quite right. The fact is I don’t know what “triangulation” means in any context other than surveying. Merriam Webster gives only the technical definition:


the measurement of the elements necessary to determine the network of triangles into which any part of the earth's surface is divided in surveying ; broadly : any similar trigonometric operation for finding a position or location by means of bearings from two fixed points a known distance apart


Usually seeing a word in context helps, so here is “triangulation” at work:


George Bush the elder promised a “kinder, gentler” conservatism, raised taxes and signed onto a minimum-wage increase. Bill Clinton cleverly (and duplicitously) “triangulated,” promising a middle-class tax cut he never delivered, vetoing welfare-reform twice before signing it, taking credit for a balanced budget that was mostly the result of a reduced military and Republican opposition to his spending proposals.


No, I still don’t get it. And why is it in inverted commas? Why put a hard word in inverted commas – quotation marks, as Americans seem to call them – when you can have an easy word without them.


Triangulation isn’t just an American thing. Our Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been at it, according to blogger Lenin. Gordon Brown Triangulates, is the headline. “David Cameron triangulates Labour on immigration,” writes another blogger. “Triangulates Labour”? So “triangulate” can be transitive, then? Of Cameron’s position on immigration, the blogger, “Dizzy” writes:


It's a classic traingulated [sic] and centrist position, and an excellent piece of manoevering [sic] to nullify the intellectually lazy charge that whenever a Tory mentions immigration he must secretly be a member of Combat 18. 


Does “triangulate” mean “outwit” or “out-manoeuvre”, then? According to Wiktionary it means:


to pit two others against each other in order to achieve a desired outcome or to gain an advantage; to “play both ends against the middle”


Wiktionary gives an example, from Victor Davis Hanson:


It is one thing to triangulate between the United States and the Arab world for short-term advantage; quite another to find oneself alienated from the heretofore supportive Americans without finding commensurate gratitude from the Middle East.


I still don’t get it. Where does the triangle come into it? The word jumps out of my hand like a bar of soap every time I try to grasp it. People use it as if the meaning is obvious, but it isn’t. I can’t help but think that it is not a good word, and that, outside its technical use, there will always be a more precise way of saying whatever it is that is meant by “triangulate”.


There are, of course, two sides to this argument. Or possibly three.


One purpose of “triangulation” seems to be to prevent “knee-jerking”. From Wisegeek, a sign giving “clear answers to common questions”:

In 1996, during President Bill Clinton’s re-election bid against Republican Bob Dole, his chief political advisor, Dick Morris, articulated a new strategy, which he dubbed triangulation. The idea was to shore up Clinton’s weak spots by catering to certain Republican ideas. Since the Republicans had recently taken the House and the Senate, this made a great deal of sense. Political triangulation allowed Clinton to capitalize on his folksy charm and high approval ratings, while also capturing the general public desire for many mainstream Republican ideas and a knee-jerk shying away from traditional Democratic ideas.

I can see why people started – in the tenth century according to The Phrase Finder – using the expression “knee-jerk”. But now it’s a cliché. You can tell it’s a cliché, because people are using it in a way that should not be, but often is, described as “knee-jerk”. Barack Obama:

“Iran's development of a nuclear weapon I believe is unacceptable. And we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening. Iran's support of terrorist organisations I think is something that has to cease,” Obama told a press conference, his first since his victory in the historic November 4 Presidential polls.


 “Obviously, how we approach and deal with a country like Iran is not something that we should, you know, simply do in a knee-jerk fashion. I think we've got to think it through.”

At National Review, or “over at” National Review as we say in the blogosphere, Jason Lee Steorts has been having “knee-jerk thoughts”.


Jerking knees are everywhere. Oliver Kay writes in The Times of the “knee-jerk culture that surrounds modern football”. Let’s hope this is off the pitch rather than on it, or the players won’t have a leg to stand on.


If “knee-jerk” has legs – or even blegs – it is in the blogosphere. The blogosphere has been around nearly as long as the blog, but now it is a house divided unto itself. A Pajamas Media article by John Hawkins has the title: The Rightosphere Copes with Defeat. “Rightosphere” is the opposite of “lefty blogosphere”, apparently. Why not call it a “righty blogosphere” then? Or a “leftosphere”?


There doesn't seem to be a centrosphere in this polar-centric spherosphere. Perhaps one day there will be a name for sites that remain optimistic in the face of adversity: the spiro-spero-sphere. But don't hold your breath. In the meantime, we must make do with triangulating the sphere, instead of that knee-jerk squaring of circles that is soooo last century.

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.  



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