July 15, 2005

Zoning in

NPR's Morning Edition today interviewed ABC correspondent Ann Compton on the history of relations between the White House and its press corps. At one point, Compton says (with line divisions at breaths and pauses):

So the focus is switched from
what exactly Karl said
to what did Karl Rove do
after this came under investigation. That is where
Washington investigations often
end up. It is the cover-up, it is the handling
of a scandal, not the original act
that now the White House press corps is zoning right in on.

I've previously wrote about hone in as substitution for home in (here and here). Zone in is an interesting further development, with plenty of web support:

It means that we should be smart about issues of the candidates running for office and not pick one issue to zone in on because it is easier.
...in a frenzied plunge that will rescue us all from a rapidly deteriorating situation, he, tiger-like, zones in on the horses that everyone has forgotten.
Zoning in on an explanation for rashes, blisters or lesions might seem a fairly straightforward task.
"I don't know if I zone in on him. I think you just kind of know what's going on in the tournament. If his matches are on, I definitely watch. For sure."
He is zoned in on the Patriots and, like many of his teammates, supremely confident in his and their ability to finish what they started last July.
Zone in on those oversized sandwiches built with hot corned beef or pastrami served on soft, sturdy, seedless rye.
Finally, dispatchers were able to zone in on the Almas’ phone signal, Wright said

None of the dictionaries that I checked had "zone in (on)", though most of them had "zone out" in the sense of "become inattentive". Also, none of the strings "zone in on", "zoned in on", "zones in on", "zoning in on" occur in the example sentences in the OED. So I suspect that zone in is a more recent development from home/hone in (And of course from zoom in as well.) Though perhaps Ben Zimmer will write in with a citation from a sports story published in 1893 or so....

As is also the case with hone in, zone in makes a reasonable amount of sense on its own terms -- to narrow the zone of consideration, and thus to focus on something. But it seems to have arisen as by eggcornish analogy to earlier phrases, themselves derived from even earlier ones, and therefore (perhaps unfairly) may stigmatize a user.

[Update: Ben Zimmer writes

Sorry, I can only take it back to 1977, in a feature by Tony Kornheiser about tennis player Jeff Borowiak:

(New York Times, Jan 29, 1977, p. 13) Some people might call him a Space Cowboy; he's a musician, and maybe a remnant of the Haight-Ashbury hippie days. He talks about "zoning in" on things, and he elongates his words in the California prose of Joni Mitchell. And now, this week, he's in a zone of his own. Jeff Borowiak has made the semifinal round of the United States pro indoor tennis tournament, and people are beginning to take notice.

I'm not quite sure that's the same zone in. Ben continues:

In sports usage, the expression appears to be influenced not only by "home/hone in (on)" but also "in the zone". (The OED draft entry defines this sense of "zone" as "A state of perfect concentration leading to optimum mental or physical performance.") So "zoned in" (without the "on") appears in contexts where one might also expect "dialed in", "locked in", or other expressions of supreme concentration.

(Chronicle Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), Aug. 14, 2001, p. D5) "I never realized how much people were rooting for me," May told his mother. "I was so zoned in."

(Tribune (Ames, Iowa), Jan. 18, 2003, p. B4) It didn't appear to affect him during a 17-point second half, but he said earlier this week it was still bothering him a little. Even so, with Price on his mind, Sullivan will be zoned in.

(Fox Sports (AP), July 8, 2005) "The first one, I was zoned in," Marchese said while talking to friends on his cell phone. "I had it locked. But the speed was faster than I thought."

(Staunton News Leader (VA), July 15, 2005) "I just felt it today," Wright said of his hitting. "I was zoned in and couldn't miss."

I agree with Ben about the sports sense, but this doesn't seem exactly to be the same "zone in" that Ann Compton used. ]

[And by the way, the earliest OED citation for "zoom in on" is

1962 Daily Tel. 8 June 23/7 The lens is capable of ‘zooming-in’ on a set target up to a mile distant.

which does seem like more or less the same sense, though not the same word. ]

[Update #2: Arlo Faria sends in an interesting compilation of Google counts:

"home in on the issue" (81 hits)
"hone in on the issue" (79 hits)
"zoom in on the issue" (30 hits)
"zone in on the issue" (3 hits)

and suggests that

Based on the relative infrequency and recentness of "zone in", I'd guess that "zone" is derived from "zoom" and not vice-versa (or speaking of eggcorns: vice-a-versa).

Interestingly, just as "home in" seemed to gain popularity in the domain of WWII air warfare, "zoom" seems to originate in aeronautics slang from WWI:

OED: 1917 Daily Mail 19 July 4/5 'Zoom'..describes the action of an aeroplane which, while flying level, is hauled up abruptly and made to climb for a few moments at a dangerously sharp angle.

This aerial zoom extends metaphorically to the photographic zoom by 1948, from which it probably more recently acquired the "home/hone in" usage.


[Update #3: Jesse Clark wrote in with an interestingly different (contextual) meaning of "zone in"--

In online games where the world is divided into zones, the act of moving from one zone to another is called "zoning" and typically leaves the user unable to do anything else.

Exiting a zone is called "zoning out" and carries the familiar meaning of "becoming inattentive" but also "departing". Entering a zone is called "zoning in" and means "becoming inattentive" but also "approaching".


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 15, 2005 10:44 AM