AFCLC, Air Force Culture and Language Center, Air Force's Global Classroom

Speaking Air Force-fully: Defining “spun up”

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  • By Dr. Angelle Khachadoorian, Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Associate Professor of Anthropology

Let’s start with a question: What does it take to get you spun up? Do you need a tranche (another great Air Force word) of information and maybe some well written Standard Operating Procedures? Or would some frustration and aggravation do the trick of spinning you up? Your response to these questions will vary significantly, depending on whether you are in the Air Force or if you are a civilian. 

The first few times that Air Force colleagues offered to get me “spun up,” I was baffled why they would want to do that to me.  Coming from the civilian world, “getting spun up” typically means the same as “to get wound up” or “worked up” – basically, to get upset and potentially send that negative energy flinging outward.  Think of a toy top whose string has just been forcefully pulled. It would spin, and hop, and bounce. A truly irritated person might act that way as well.  Yet, for the Air Force personnel making the offer, it was a friendly gesture.  They wanted to help “bring me up to speed” (Land? Air? Wind?) so that I would fully understand what was being asked of me. Why are Air Force and civilian versions of “spun up” so glaringly opposite? And why was no one else as spun up about it as I was?

It was not immediately apparent to me that “to get spun up” was actually a technical term.  This is an interesting example of technical jargon colliding with popular speech.  Jargon is language that is specific to a particular group, like members of a hobby or profession.  Jargon is usually fairly opaque to folks outside of the group.  “Spin up” as it is used by people in the Air Force is a perfect example of specialized language that has entered common Air Force lingo.

The only Internet references to this term that I could find were describing hard drives needing to start spinning in order to be functional. My encounters with the phrase “spun up” didn’t seem like the Air Force was using a computer term, though. In fact, this might be a sort of linguistic convergent evolution – when two unrelated things end up looking similar. The term also seemed very specific to aircrew members, and it took someone with a lot of experience flying to make the Air Force connection for me: gyroscopes!

As a novice to the world of torque and precession, here is my primitive description: a gyroscope is a spinning central disk (or rotor or wheel, depending on the source) that uses the Earth’s gravity to orient itself. In turn, this helps the aircrew to orient themselves in relation to the ground, which is a good thing to be aware of.  A gyroscope with a still wheel is effectively an art object.  A spun up gyroscope is a fully operating, useful and effective tool for helping aircrew maintain awareness of their airplane’s position.  Helping someone get spun up, then, is a way to keep them from crashing and burning, an outcome nobody would want!

After digging into the phrase’s origins, watching a bunch of gyroscope videos, and reading a pile of articles, I think I am going to start using the term “spun up” Air Force-fully (and I am also pretty spun up on gyroscopes!).

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