Why did President Obama double up on 'double down'?

The Monitor's language columnist takes issue with President Obama's use of a gambling idiom in his State of the Union message.

Saul Loeb/AP
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this Jan. 24 photo. Why did he double up on 'double down' in his message?

President Obama's third State of the Union message is receding into history. You might say it's all over, including the shoutin'.

But given the president's reputation for oratory, I find myself puzzling at his use, not once but twice, of a particular turn of phrase: double down.

The White House website confirms what I was sure I heard while listening to the speech live. (The website adds helpful notations of lines that got applause, though.) In his section on energy policy, Mr. Obama said, "It's time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising."

And then later on, when speaking of the need to develop the nation's human capital, he said, "At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers."

I like to know where my metaphors have been before I use them, and I can't imagine Obama and his speechwriting team are any different.

Double down, with or without the hyphen, has a number of different slang meanings. But the most relevant one appears to be the sense in which it's used in gambling, in blackjack, to be precise. The literal definition of the gambling term doesn't make clear, though, at least not to this nongambler, why it should be used metaphorically as it seems to be. And so I found what Urban Dictionary has to say helpful.

One of its definitions for double down is "to engage in risky behavior, especially when one is already in a dangerous situation." The reference continues, "This figurative usage as appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary is a meaningful explanation of 'double down' other than the ubiquitous 'to double the wager in exchange for only one additional card in Blackjack gambit' in every online dictionary."

Here's Urban Dictionary's usage example: "Don't try to double down the exposures of your retirement money in aggressive investments."

But the president wasn't urging aggressive risk taking. Rather, he called for courses of action we might call "no-brainers" – common sense. How can a society go wrong putting more effort into education? How can clean energy be a bad idea?

AOL writer Bruce Watson nailed "double down" back in November 2010 for one of his "Buzzword of the Week" columns. He traced the term to its origin in gambling and then observed that it seems to have slipped its moorings since then. The meaning of the phrase, he noted, "has gotten a little fuzzy."

Was the phrase the White House speechwriters (and others who have "doubled down" lately) really wanted "redouble our efforts"? It obviously lacks the rhythm of "doubling down." (I can hear in that phrase two bounces of a basketball on the parquet – can you?) And "redoubling our efforts" carries a sort of "eat your vegetables" exhortatory quality that, well, may not get that many people to eat their vegetables.

But speaking of vegetables, I can think of another reason the president might have wanted to avoid "doubling down." First lady Michelle Obama has focused on improving American nutrition as her signature campaign in the White House. And "double down" is the phrase KFC Corporation, purveyors of what used to be known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, seized upon as the name for its controversial but popular no-bun, all-meat "sandwich."

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