Sun, Nov 21, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Kumbaya prize not available for those who like to game the system

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Interrogated this year by US investigators in his Iraq prison cell about prewar UN inspections, former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz quoted then-president Saddam Hussein as having told his manipulative Higher Committee in 2002, "These people are playing a game with us -- we'll play a game with them."

That technique is known in the American vernacular as "gaming the system." This summer, US President George W. Bush said of Saddam, "Intelligence clearly says that he was gaming the system." In an October news conference, the president used the phrase redundantly: "The Duelfer report showed that Saddam was systematically gaming the system, using the UN oil-for-food program to try to influence countries ... to undermine sanctions."

Sarah Green, in e-mail-land, writes: "Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky accused his opponent, a doctor, of gaming the medical system. Environmentalists accused utility companies of getting away with lax water-safety standards -- again by gaming the system. What I want to know is, what is this game, and will they let me play?"

You don't want to play this ancient game. In Standard English, the verb rooted in the Teutonic gamen became to game and had the innocent meaning of "to play, to amuse." As a noun, that meaning still holds; but as a verb and its participle, gaming, along with the related gambling, the word gained a rakish connotation.

As a slang adjective, however, game began as a synonym for "whorish"; in the 1698 Dictionary of the Canting Crew, it is defined as "at a Bawdy-house, Lewd Women," and Farmer and Henley's 1890 slang dictionary has an entry for game-woman defined as "a prostitute." Although Cab Calloway's 1944 Hepster's Dictionary defined gammin' as merely "flirtatious," the nonsexual slang meaning of the verb to game has long been "to swindle."

But when was gaming, in its slangy, crapshooting sense, applied to a system? Earliest citation I can find in the Factiva database comes from the March 24, 1985, Sunday Oklahoman, in an article by Chris Casteel about DNR (do not resuscitate) orders in hospitals. The sponsor of state legislation dealing with this issue, Cal Hobson, was quoted saying, "We're gaming the system to deal with the problem."

The system was the insurance system, and the phrase was familiar throughout the medical community. In 1987, Robert Pear of The New York Times quoted an American Medical Association official in vigorous denial of fabricated diagnoses and the misuse of billing codes to increase payments from insurance companies: "There is no hard evidence that doctors are up-coding or gaming the system."

The phrase, with its larcenous connotation, quickly made its way from the world of medical insurance into the arena of politics. In 1993, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the new first lady, may have been the one who built the linguistic bridge: Heading a health-insurance task force that turned out to be ill fated, she told the Service Employees International Union, "Explain how you see the system that is being gamed and ripped off." A decade later, energy executives in California were accused of gaming the system, and the phrase was widely understood to mean "corruptly exploiting the complexities of regulation to cheat, or rip off, the consumer." It was a short step to applying the charge to any complicated arrangement, as Bush did in the UN oil-for-food scandal.

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