As nearly as can be determined, the term "triangulation" entered the American political lexicon early last summer. It quickly became the bewitching buzzword of Bill Clinton's Washington.

Sounding scrupulously scientific, "triangulation" is hardly a word to capture the imagination of so-called "normal Americans." But inside the Beltway, where a buzzword can pass for blinding insight, it has been welcomed with the sort of raucous enthusiasm normally reserved for a big idea.

So now it's a specialty on the menu of the media-political complex, right up there with such favorites of the past as "benign neglect," "the new paradigm" and "the economy, stupid." It's a tasty morsel to be served up on Sunday morning television, chewed upon in op-ed pieces, spewed out by campaign consultants -- that is, swallowed, digested and ultimately expelled in the movable feast of sound bites. Between now and Christmas -- or whenever Clinton and Congress finally sign their inevitable truce in the great budget battle -- it's likely to live on as the buzzword du jour.

The expression was coined as a term of art by Republican pollster Dick Morris, President Clinton's campaign guru and -- for all the suspicion, mystery and press clippings he has generated -- the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh of American politics.

"Triangulation' is a very appealing word to a guy like Clinton," says Republican media consultant Robert Goodman, who has worked closely with Morris in countless GOP campaigns. "It's a very nice, Oxfordian way of saying something, and Dick is very good at that."

But what, precisely, is "triangulation" trying to say? For the pols and pundits who bandy the buzzword, it seems to mean (to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty) just what they choose it to mean -- neither more nor less. Democrats in Congress use it to describe Clinton's (for them) alarming tendency to abandon party principles in the service of political expediency, such as his recent lament to a bunch of rich Houstonians that Congress made him raise their taxes too much. Republicans invoke it as proof of the president's cynical lack of conviction, an alleged willingness to embrace nearly any position suggested by his polling, to cozy up to almost anyone in his quest for short-term political advantage while dividing and confounding his enemies.

In the definition popular with political reporters, it's the highly successful White House strategy of maneuvering ideologically between the two major parties while keeping a sanitary distance from both. In other words, it's a fancy way of saying "playing both ends against the middle," "splitting the difference" or just plain "centrism" -- whatever it takes for Clinton to achieve high public approval ratings as he heads into an election year.

"It's easy to lampoon it as a buzzword, but it does stand for a series of tactical maneuvers that seem to be fairly effective," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton once chaired. "It allows the president to define his opposition to both the liberal guardians of the status quo and the conservative barbarians at the gate, and allows him to stand for reform without embracing the callous and extreme brand of reform advocated by the Republicans. But triangulation is mere political positioning unless it is accompanied by a substantive alternative of progressive governing."

"I think it's dead now," pronounced Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), a deputy House whip who's spent much of the last three years carrying White House water and other, politically noxious, substances. "If anything, the lesson of the budget impasse is that the Democrats and the White House are like Siamese twins. They are inextricably linked for better or for -- well, let's just leave it at that."

"Newt Gingrich has done his best to dis-triangulate things," says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "Clinton came over to the Hill {last week} and that meeting was as mutually respectful and enthusiastic as any meeting between the president and House Democrats that I've seen. . . . Maybe now Clinton is into quadrilateralism, or pentagonism or hexagonification."

"The country likes the general direction of the Republicans," says media consultant Goodman, "but they just think it's too fast and too harsh. Clinton, in image terms, is portraying himself as the person who really accepts the direction, but just wants to make it a more pleasant journey and stop people from getting hurt unnecessarily. I don't think Dick Morris is running around with a little triangle. But I'm a little surprised at how dependent they are on polls. It's all polls, this presidency. The decision-making happens after the poll."

Morris himself declined to discuss his brainchild, saying apologetically that White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry had in recent weeks "restricted" his contact with reporters. "It's not my choice," Morris insisted. McCurry, for his part, said that an interview with Morris would be "fine" but attributed the difficulty to the pollster's delicate condition of being "noticeably shy" and "kind of laying low."

Was this a real-life example of White House triangulation -- a clever navigation between yes and no? Or maybe it was just a reprise of benign neglect.

"Trian-gu-la-tion, stran-gu-la-tion," McCurry crooned merrily in the dulcet tones of a lounge lizard.

Other top Clintonites, when asked to explain triangulation, were equally enigmatic.

"I don't want to talk about it," snapped senior presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos.

"This is a subject about which I know almost nothing -- I failed geometry," said White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes.

After several phone calls, however, McCurry was ready to explain triangulation in Morris's absence. The press secretary said he was "doing an interpretive exegetical reading of a five-paragraph mini-essay" that Morris had prepared in response to The Washington Post's inquiry. But McCurry declined to provide a copy of Morris's treatise.

"To begin with," the president's spokesman explained, "triangulation is defining a location based on two fixed reference points that are known. What Morris talks about . . . is using triangulation as a tool to determine how people get a fix, how they discover the direction in which the president is leading, what the agenda is, and how it's measured against what's known -- that is, liberalism versus traditional conservatism. It has been often misrepresented as just another definition of centrism, or trying to satisfy all sides, but it's more Hegelian than that, more dynamic, more creative -- thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

"You also, simultaneously, can see from this last period, coming out of the budget debate, there's one side of the equation, then new ideas, then the other side of the equation, and how we're building on these experiences like a pyramid. So we're taking the best of both sides and building them up to a pinnacle. Thus taking triangulation -- for the first time, to my knowledge -- and making it 3-D!"

We're getting a headache.

"I know. That's why I tried to spare you."

Meanwhile, presumably, Clinton will sit tranquilly in his 3-D pyramid and watch his approval ratings rise.