Words on a wire

We think of balance as a good thing, associating it with poise, equilibrium, evenness and harmony, as stability in unpredictable circumstances or as a healthy mix of disparate elements. It’s a versatile metaphor. We try to balance our lives by living a balanced lifestyle, holding balanced views and following, on balance, a balanced diet. We balance work and play, overtime and downtime, business and pleasure. Mostly business: we balance our books, accounts, loans, budgets and balance sheets.

If you lose your balance, you can always find it again (or claim to). This is rebalancing. It might seem like something you couldn’t do too much of, but apparently you can. The word itself has become very popular recently, at least according to the crude graph below and the subjective evidence of my eyes and ears.

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Balancing and rebalancing are common in economic policy at corporate and national levels. There is constant rebalancing of growth, power, trade, budgets, assets, and priorities. Most of all, there’s rebalancing of economies and investment portfolios. Wikipedia says the latter means “bringing a portfolio of investments that has deviated away from one’s target asset allocation back into line”. There’s a more straightforward definition here. As far as I can tell, it reflects a desire to make as much money as possible.

On a large scale, such activity can require a rebalancing of the workforce. This might be an ordeal for affected workers and their families, but rebalancing makes it sound like something no well-balanced person would resist or condemn. No surprise then that the word is also popular in the context of rights and the law. A quick newspaper search showed recent hits for rebalancing rights, rebalancing the statute book, rebalancing the Human Rights Act, and rebalancing the relationship between citizen and state.

The happy connotations of balance and rebalance make them attractive as euphemisms. In Now That’s What I Call Jargon, RTE broadcaster John Murray writes that rebalancing “tends to be trotted out when a company is selling a loss-making business in order to halt the drain on its finances”. He notes that it “can also be used by companies that are laying off hundreds of employees but cannot bring themselves to say it in so many words”. Tim Llewellyn, a writer and broadcaster formerly with the BBC, described balance as “the BBC’s crudely applied device for avoiding trouble”.

Web of synonyms from VisualThesaurus.com

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Balance as a metaphor is grounded in our experience: human functioning depends on balance in physical and physiological ways. The first meaning of balance I learned as a child was the ability to not fall over as I stood up (or tried something more elaborate); this ability is vital to many sports. As kids we spin in circles for the fun of losing our balance. Inside us, balance is just as critical — without it we might become unbalanced. Our biochemical and psychological equilibriums are dynamic, complex and finely tuned; they depend on appropriate ratios between different hormones, habits, signals, systems, organs and unconscious strategies that can support or hinder one another.

We know that our bodies perform great balancing acts, but sometimes we need to be reminded, or encouraged to help. Many health and lifestyle companies, especially alternative health providers, promise to balance or rebalance certain connections they consider primary, such as those between mind, body and spirit, between the brain’s hemispheres, the body’s energies, yin and yang, and so on. One massage training centre describes rebalancing as “a unique psychosomatic body mind treatment system incorporating technical precision with an artistic meditative approach”. Which is all very well, but whether it translates into a good massage is anyone’s guess.

12 Responses to Words on a wire

  1. Aidan says:

    Thanks for the really thoughtful post Stan. It is nice to take time to ponder on a word that is so widely used and abused these days. My eldest daughter has just started gymnastics so in my home we have been talking a lot about balance in the physical sense lately.

  2. Chris says:

    Interesting side note: I ran “balance” (and its morphological variants) through Mark Davies’ Corpus of Historical American English and found that the word saw a non-trivial rise in frequency throughout the 20th Century. Are we more enthralled with the metaphor than our 19th Century cousins? Maybe the rise in globalism has caused a rise in the need for conflict management, hence “balance”?

  3. Stan says:

    Thanks, Aidan. Its popularity is a sign of usefulness, but it does seem to have become quite a buzzword in business and economics. Which isn’t to say that it oughtn’t to be used in those contexts, just that it shouldn’t be used carelessly or cynically, if possible. Spare us the transparent euphemisms!

    Chris: Thank you. I didn’t have time to investigate balance‘s historical usage in any depth, so I appreciate your side note. I’m sure there are many reasons for its rising popularity. Its close association with lifestyle, for example — which I think saw a surge from the early 1970s — may have helped strengthen its metaphorical use.

  4. Sean Jeating says:

    Just a quick note as for one historical usage:
    Can’t remember which politician of the time coined the phrase, but the Congress of Vienna (1814/15) was mainly about Balance of Power.

  5. I’ve already seen the word rebalancing at work in terms of budget cuts. One for the bullshit bingo pile, methinks

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Being a follower of Gaia and James Lovelock, balance is a subject dear to my heart. He contends that Gaia is completely unbalanced as we continue to plunder and despoil her and thus none of us (merely pestilential fleas on her hide) can attain any semblance of balance.
    I prefer the word harmony myself. It seems to do a slightly better job.
    Great post Stan.
    XO
    WWW

  7. Stan says:

    Sean: Good example of an abstraction (power) qualified by another (balance). So much depends on the details!

    Jams: I’d say the bullshit bingo pile is almost the size of a small hill by now.

    WWW: And we start with ourselves. I like Lovelock’s ideas, for the most part, but he’s unlikely to convince me that nuclear energy is our only option.

  8. Claudia says:

    Good, sensible, interesting post, Stan. It can be quite hard to achieve balance. Entre les deux, mon coeur balance is often my position. And sometimes, the perfect equilibrium in everything bores me immensely. It’s nice to be a little foolish, and take a risk. Not always to calculate the after-effect before making a decision or giving one’s heart away. My older son has the habit of asking my opinions on many things. I tell him, “If I had listened to my mother, you and your brother would not have been born.” What a loss it would have been! Of course, being actively alive means involving other people in our actions. And losing one’s balance might cause pain not always in one’s heart but also in others’. Nevertheless what is life if you always refuse to walk on a high rope because you might fall?

    Je ne sais pas pourquoi
    Je suis au désarroi.
    Aurais-je un jour la chance
    De trouver ma balance?
    D’un bord à l’autre je penche
    Je tiens à peine debout.
    Je crains un avalanche
    De gestes bizarres et fous.
    O sagesse, sauve-moi
    Sans détruire mon vrai Moi.

  9. The modern way is that you don’t need balance when you have artificially stabilising wheels – medication in diet, government intervention in banking, self-help books to scaffold the poor leaning self. To our shame.

  10. annie says:

    Must be the heat and humidity that are addling my brain, but I misread (with great interest and excitement) the title, WORDS ON WIRE. I love wire and was curious how you were going to spin this one…Philip Petit..the man on the Wire?

    (appropos great balance!)

    cheers on the visual map and thoughtful teasing out of issues. when I was little I would say words over and over until they lost their meaning and were just sounds.

  11. Stan says:

    Claudia: Well said, and thank you for the wise (and dramatic!) poem. Just as moderation should be had in moderation, so too should balance be balanced with imbalance. It’s very human to suppose that we have more control over events than we do. Sometimes we tie ourselves up in knots trying to make the right decision, only to end up trusting our original instinct.

    PFW: Shame indeed, and more shame to come. It appears that we have too much information and too little knowledge of how to assess it, so we end up trusting, deferring, and delegating when we shouldn’t or needn’t.

    Annie: Sorry I added to the addling! The post title is a little oblique, but is (I hope) soon made clear by the content; there was also the pun on ‘birds on a wire’, which having occurred to me wouldn’t be denied.

    After seeing (and enjoying) Man on Wire, I found that I admired what Petit does without warming to him much. His art appeals in many ways: it’s driven by an obscure obsession with height and its ascent, like a mountaineer’s; it’s executed like a heist by well-meaning tricksters; and the result is an unusually dangerous mix of athleticism, performance art, and circus act. It’s a pity its practice left so many feelings and friendships hurt along the way.

    (Re: repeating words: This still happens to me, most recently with school. There’ll be a blog post eventually!)

  12. annie says:

    My words that I can remember repeating were MILK and JEFF,but there was a strange satisfaction in taking the meaning away that was revelatory, and a little like magic.

    I had similar feelings about Petit,in Man on a Wire. (I did get the pun with the birds and oh yes glad to see the starlings are taking flight!) It was also just that time when anything was possible, and that resonated with me. I recommend Colm McCann’s “Let the great world spin”,which has Petit’s walk in the air as a gathering point for a novel of linked stories set in NYC in 1974. McCann’s father-in-law walked out of the World Trade Center on 9/11, and this look backwards in time was his gift of healing and hope.

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