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!"