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Ahead of the curve

Q From James Harbeck: I see that you don’t have an entry for ahead of the curve. I haven’t so far found a definite etymology for this one; I’d always assumed it had to do with bell curves in statistics — a curve that charts the time of adoption of new technology, for instance — but others have suggested biking and baseball. (And there are people out there who think it’s ahead of the curb, which makes no sense.) So I’ll be interested to know what you find.

A The evidence does indeed suggest there’s a mathematical curve at the root of the expression. The idiom usually means that those being referred to are in a position to anticipate or initiate the latest developments in some field — to be ahead of the game, you might say, which is an older equivalent of the same idiomatic idea.

Some history first. With one exception I’ll get to in a moment, the phrase starts to appear in print in the early 1970s. The evidence suggests that it became popular as the result of its having been a jargon term within the Washington Beltway during the Nixon period:

Repeatedly Nixon and his top aides spoke of “keeping ahead of the curve” -- giving information to the public just before it otherwise became generally known, and thus being able to take some credit.

Anchorage Daily News, 22 May 1974.

However, it wasn’t the origin. A fuller version, ahead of the power curve, is recorded earlier and existed in parallel with the shorter form well into the 1980s. An early example is in a speech by Admiral Thomas H Moorer, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was discussing streamlining the systems for controlling American nuclear and conventional forces worldwide:

Moorer told newsmen that without a doubt, the system “is very responsive” in dealing with current problems and possible crises. “Our concern is not for today,” Moorer said, “but to make certain we stay ahead of the power curve.”

The Independent Press-Telegram (Long Beach, California), 25 Mar. 1972.

The power that’s being referred to might be electrical (a couple of examples from the early 1980s occur in descriptions of electricity generation by nuclear energy). However, several appearances show it has a different genesis:

“Just remember,” Davis told her, “you have to stay ahead of the power curve.” “I don’t understand,” Joyce replied. “It’s a saying they have on aircraft carriers. If a pilot comes in ahead of the power curve, he can pull up and out safely if something goes wrong. If he falls behind the curve and something happens, he’ll crash into the ship. You always have to look out for yourself and stay ahead of the power curve.”

The Execution of Charles Horman, by Thomas Hauser, 1978.

Other literal usages likewise refer to flying. This is the earliest I’ve so far found:

Inherent stability of the plane — if it is being flown ahead of the power curve with level wings — will control the pitch attitude with less chance of structural damage than a pilot applying large elevator control inputs.

Flying, Jul. 1964.

The power curve shows how an aircraft’s speed changes in response to changes in engine power. It has a pronounced minimum at the airspeed at which the aircraft is most efficient (least drag for the power applied). Below this airspeed, against common sense, it takes more thrust to reduce speed while continuing to fly level. A plane in this situation is said by pilots to be behind the curve and it’s a risky place to be, close to stalling speed and with limited options in case of trouble. If you’re above the curve, on the other hand, you have much more freedom of manoeuvre.

Taking the examples as a group, it seems virtually certain that the idiom derives rather loosely from the mathematics of flight (and so is a relative of pushing the envelope). Its source is most probably the US military.

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Page created 10 Sep 2011