Your copy will blow if you overuse this word

Photo credit: Abhi Sharma

It really blows out there. 

Republican senators, one article said, need to “get back home and campaign for re-election against the political headwinds created by Trump.”

A columnist wrote: “Neither Hilary [sic] Clinton nor Donald Trump is a political genius, so either one of them could face even stronger headwinds than Obama has.”

In one PBS NewsHour, it was almost a gale: “When Hillary Clinton trips and falls, stumbles, it’s because she’s encountering headwinds of her own making,” the anchor Gwen Ifill said, quoting the political correspondent Amy Walter. A few minutes later another correspondent, William Brangham, was interviewing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: “I want to ask you a little bit,” Brangham said, “about some of the headwinds that are facing the U.N. and all the nations who are grappling with this.”

Politicians aren’t the only ones facing “headwinds”: “The economy is closer to meeting the Fed’s dual mandate, with the labor market strengthening and inflation creeping up, despite headwinds from abroad,” one article said. Another said that “Microsoft’s intelligent cloud segment sales increased 10 percent in constant currency to $6.7 billion and helped offset headwinds from a slowing PC business.”

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And not to pick on one publication, but a search of its archives showed a veritable hurricane of “headwinds.” Some referred to actual “headwinds” rather than figurative ones.

“Headwinds” is a perfectly acceptable term for an obstacle, until it reaches the level of a cliché and loses its punch or becomes a punchline. As we’ve mentioned, journalists seem to grab on to terms and then love them to death, and “headwinds” is sailing close to the wind.

The original “headwind” was one of the four cardinal winds, emanating from the north, south, east, or west. In the early 18th century, it gained usage as a literal definition of a wind blowing directly against the direction of travel, according to The Oxford English Dictionary.

But, as the OED points out, a “headwind” is not always a negative: “In most circumstances a headwind impedes forward progress, but such conditions may be beneficial to aircraft because of the additional lift created.”

A “headwind” didn’t become a figurative problem until 1927, according to the OED, when it was first used to mean a “circumstance or factor which inhibits progress, recovery, etc.”

Even so, it wasn’t as popular as it seems to be today, according to a Google Ngram of books.

In a totally unscientific survey of these books containing “headwind” or “headwinds,” the spike in the 1940s seems directly related to aviation, which is not surprising, given the development of more powerful airplanes and jet engines, not to mention World War II. In the late 1990s, those avionic “headwinds” are challenged by economic ones, where “headwinds” and “tailwinds” are often applied to market forces.

Political “headwinds” have been building in this century, perhaps even this decade, though the economy still seems to get buffeted more. The current divisive election cycle seems to be producing a lot more hot air, and “headwinds”: Of more than 2,000 Nexis hits on “headwinds” in just the past month, more appear to be referring to politics rather than economics. A few hits still use “headwinds” in a literal sense.

“Headwinds” contains a frisson of judgment, which may explain why it appears more frequently in what Nexis classifies as blog than newspapers. More important, it appears so frequently that it may be time for “headwinds” to be blown out to sea.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.