Winging It After You Spill It

I was listening to Ed Schultz’s radio show today.  Ed’s an amusing fellow with a knack for populist appeal.  I like his “format,” which allows for intelligent callers who disagree with him.  One of his main topics today was the BP oil-spill.  It seems to be a topic that attracts men.  No women called in when I was listening, but perhaps because men like to talking about fixing things, have an opinion about anything mechanical, and changed some car-oil once, they like to call in and opine.

Ed admitted he knew nothing in the way of engineering, but he also observed that BP was “winging it, folks.” I agree.  Perhaps, like me, you had a powerful intuitive sense that the structure with which they tried to contain the spill wasn’t going to work.  It didn’t.

Anyway, I poked around looking for the origin of “winging it,” and it seems to spring from the theater:

This phrase dates from the late 19th century and the verb ‘to wing’ was defined in an 1885 edition of Stage magazine:


“‘To wing’… indicates the capacity to play a rôle without knowing the text, and the word itself came into use from the fact that the artiste frequently received the assistance of a special prompter, who… stood… screened..by a piece of the scenery or a wing.”

This information came from the phrase.org site in the UK.

“On a wing and a prayer,” which as you know alludes to almost-delusional hope, appears to originate  from a WWII-era song by Adamson and (Jimmy) McHugh that is explicitly about the air-war and coming in on a wing and a prayer–hoping to land safely, knowing the opposite will probably be true.

New professors and no doubt almost anyone new to a job have the feeling of coming into class on a wing and a prayer–even when they’ve spent hours preparing.

Experienced professor are more likely to wing it, and as they wing it, they may be in the habit of making up information and/or feeling as if they shouldn’t admit they don’t know something.   They’re hired to know stuff, you see, and as experts, they fear appearing not to know, whereas of course a real expert will comfortably admit a gap in knowledge and fill it later.  –Just as a genuine empiricist (and others, for that matter) will–wait for it–change his or her mind.  “Oh, our claim in that earlier article is wrong. Cool.  Let’s claim something different based on our improved data and/or interpretation.”

I dearly wish BP Oil seemed to have more or better experts on board and had some experience and data concerning what to do when such an accident happens.  They do indeed seem to be winging it, except this isn’t theater.

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