More curve-bending

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Following up on Mark's post about William Safire's latest On Language column, "Bending the curve," I wanted to share some of the citational history of this particular idiom, as I've been able to piece it together. The brief story can be found in my Aug. 21 Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, "The Lexicon of the Health Care Debate." What follows is the long story.

The idea that the rise of something undesirable can be altered by "bending the curve" has been around for quite a while. Here is an unnamed writer in the midst of World War I, optimistically predicting that "the progress of science" will "bend the curve more rapidly toward the base line of permanent 'peace on earth and good will to men'" (where the curve is understood as a graph of the frequency of wars over time):

"The Progress of Science: Substitutes for War" (anon.)
The Scientific Monthly
(Oct. 1915), p. 101
The writer of this note has determined the proportion of each century in which the leading nations have been engaged in war. The curve thus found has no great reliabilty, for it does not take into account the percentages of the peoples concerned, but its course clearly indicates that even under circumstances as they have been, wars will come to an end. And there is good reason to believe that the new condition — universal education and universal suffrage, democratic control, improved economic conditions of living for the people, the scientific attitude — will tend to bend the curve more rapidly toward the base line of permanent "peace on earth and good will to men."

Here, in a 1941 article, "bending the curve" is used to refer to a shift in popular opinion (in favor of Darwinism):

"Darwinism Comes to America, 1859-1900" by Bert James Loewenberg
The Mississippi Valley Historical Review
(Dec. 1941), p. 360
Shifting values as well as scholarly approval and popular diffusion bent the curve in the direction of general assent.

And here, in 1945, a proponent of "cosmic humanism" (a precursor to
the New Age movement) says that his utopian group is "committed to the
task of bending the curve of social change into an upward-spiralling
urge toward planetary integration" (whatever that means!):

"An Institute of Scientific Humanism" by Oliver L. Reiser
Philosophy of Science
(Apr. 1945), p. 51
In a real sense, therefore, we are committed to the task of bending the curve of social change into an upward-spiralling urge toward planetary integration, the attainment of which alone can satisfy man's "hunger for wholiness [sic]."

In the realm of public policy, "bending the curve" has been used for the past couple of decades to refer to how policy adjustments can help reverse unwelcome trends. Often the "curve" in question charts rising spending or costs. A few examples from the '90s:

Fortune, Feb. 8, 1993
Now Bill Clinton wants to bend the curve of spending still lower.

The Plain Dealer, Nov. 20, 1994
"We're working toward a huge gap in revenues," [Frank] Mosier said. "Unless we're able to bend the curve and increase economic development in this state … we're going to be paying big-time taxes in 10 years."

The Washington Post, Aug. 15, 1996
"The environmental community feels very strongly that we need to bend the curve" by focusing intense development near existing roads and transit lines, [Jim] Hogan said.

A 1998 study on global sustainability used the phrase in its title:

Bending the Curve: Toward Global Sustainability by Paul Raskin et al.
(Stockholm Environment Institute, 1998)
This study shows how a comprehensive set of policy reforms could bend the curve of development toward sustainability.

With respect to health care policy, "bending the (cost) curve" was already in use by congressional Republicans in 2003 to refer to their Medicare prescription-drug legislation:

CongressDaily, Mar. 6, 2003
Agreed House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., "We have to bend the cost curve as the baby boomers retire" or else Medicare could turn into Medicaid.

Washington Times, Nov. 21, 2003
Republican leaders have defended the bill as the best they could get, but also said they believe it will be enough to bend the cost curve downward.

Inside CMS, Jan. 29, 2004
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA) often touted the chronic care provisions of the legislation as being key to "bending the cost curve in the out-years" when promoting the bill in Congress last fall.

The latest usage by members of Congress and the Obama administration seems to have arisen from a benchmark report published in December '07 by The Commonwealth Fund: "Bending the Curve: Options for Achieving Savings and Improving Value in U.S. Health Spending." And for more on the recent popularization of the expression in health care policy discussions, check out Daniel Libit's July 24 Politico article, "Move over, David Beckham. Bend it like Peter Orszag!"


  1. Bob Lieblich said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    I hope we don't find anyone "bending the learning curve." It's likely to prove almost impossible to figure out what that means.

  2. Theophylact said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    Too late.

  3. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    Is this a particularly American idiom? I don't think I've ever encountered it in the UK.

  4. Zubon said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    If it is a common American idiom, I have led an uncommon life. American (Michigan), age 30, and I never heard the phrase before today; public policy was cited as a place where the phrase is used, and I never noticed it in getting a public policy degree or working for the government. I have heard economists talk about shifting curves, or curves that bend in particular directions, but not "bend" as a transitive verb applying to curves. But I could be unusual.

    Now the Beckham reference, yes, "Bend it Like Beckham" is well enough known on this side of the pond.

  5. Robert said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    It seems economists use the term curve to refer to what is usually called a function. This seems to be a violation of the maxim of quantity (a circle is an example of a curve that isn't (or is only locally) a function).

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    I agree with Zubon. I'm 40 years older and from Wisconsin originally, but I've lived in New England for nearly 50 years, and the phrase isn't familiar to me at all.

  7. Mark P said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    I don't think I have ever heard the specific phrase "bending the curve" but the meaning was clear to me from context, since I'm familiar with the idea of a curve representing the change of some quantity (usually) with time.

  8. Nathan Myers said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    I've heard of "bending the curve", but always in a context where the speaker was evidently terminally confused. I take it, like much of management jargon, as what the biologists term a "reliable indicator" of incompetence.

  9. Mary T. said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    And, of course, in addition to curves, arcs also bend. As Martin Luther King said, "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

  10. Kenny Easwaran said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    "Bending the curve" seems to me like the appropriate phrase to use when talking about changing the sign of the second derivative without necessarily changing the sign of the first derivative, as in the healthcare debate. That is, none of the people involved in this debate think that we'll actually get the cost of healthcare to decrease or even stabilize any time in the near future. What they're suggesting is just that hopefully we can get the rate of increase in price to go down, so that the cost curve "bends".

    And this seems to explain why the phrase was pretty uncommon before the healthcare debate – there aren't too many cases in which you want to talk specifically about a change in the second derivative rather than the first.

    (As it happens, fewer than half of the older citations mentioned here seem to have this nice precise-seeming usage. Maybe the metaphor meant something else in those contexts. But this idea about second derivatives seems to me to be the only reason the phrase is useful in the current context.)

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