On "PBS NewsHour" last month, South Bend, Indiana, mayor and likely presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (pronounced "BOOT-ih-jidge") said that making a version of Medicare available for all Americans would provide "a very natural glide path to a single-payer environment."
A few days later, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said of his state's financial woes, "We're on a glide path to fixing this." And shortly after that, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow described President Donald Trump's budget as "a steady glide path" toward lower federal borrowing as a percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
What's a "glide path," and why do so many people suddenly seem to be on it?
An aeronautical term that first appeared during the 1930s, "glide path" refers to the proper slope of descent for an aircraft preparing to land. Just to reassure any non-pilots out there, a "glide path" is a safe, by-the-book track; it has nothing to do with being forced to "glide" to a landing without power because the engine has died.
People started using "glide path" metaphorically during the 1970s. The earliest example I could find came in a New York Times piece by economist Leonard Silk on Aug. 15, 1973: "Keeping the economy on the right glide path for a soft landing will require strong nerves and quick reflexes."
Today, most people use "glide path," as Buttigieg, Lamont and Kudlow did, to denote a gradual, comfortable transition to a desired outcome. When the Boston Red Sox clinched the home-field post-season advantage last September, for instance, the FenwayNation website gloated with a gleeful glissando: "It's glide-path time!"
But as Silk's usage suggests, "glide path" can also denote a descent to an ambiguous or even negative outcome. In a recent issue of The Atlantic, John Temple accused the owners of the Denver Post of "carefully managing the newspaper's glide path to oblivion," while last January, the New York Times reported that German Prime Minister Angela Merkel was on a "glide path out of power."
Likewise, financial planners use "glide path" to describe the gradual decline in the value of retirees' assets as they head toward — gulp — death.
As these citations suggest, the connotation of a "glide path" depends on the ultimate destination. For the Red Sox, it's the next world championship; for retirees, it's the next world. When you encounter "glide path," it's probably best to fasten your seat belt, raise your seat to the upright position and hope for a happy landing.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.