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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

grand bargain

(1990’s | governese (diplomacy))

The grand bargain is the safety net that will keep us from driving over the fiscal cliff. Got that? The latest outcropping of this phrase forms a sizable ledge extending from the dreaded cliff, as Obama persistently expresses optimism that a grand bargain will be struck and the Defense Department will be spared the indignity of spending cuts.

This phrase sounds like it ought to go back a century or more, like “great game,” but I believe it arose in the mid-80’s, in the narrow context of arms-reduction talks with the Soviet Union. (The first usage I found on LexisNexis occurred in James Reston’s column in the New York Times, April 8, 1984, albeit in a different context.) The grand bargain had to do with the Russians reducing missile stockpiles, so that the U.S., in exchange, would curtail SDI (the “Star Wars” missile defense system). Such brinkmanship led to the near-abolition of the nuclear arms race in 1986, according to one version of the story, before cooler heads prevailed. The phrase reared its head again in 1991, around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the “grand bargain” had more to do with the U.S. getting its hooks into some USSR raw materials and other assets, plus a healthy share of the banking system. After that, the expression began to spread in earnest and soon became well-established.

It seems to mean one of two things. A “grand bargain” can be either a wide-ranging agreement that covers all or nearly all the important matters under discussion between (or among) the parties, or it can mean an agreement that gives each party something important that it wants. The more parties involved, the grander the bargain. Or a grand bargain can form between two parties, but it has to be momentous. Any successful agreement has to address all concerned, of course, so in a way it’s apodictic to use it to mean merely “something for everyone,” but in this very early example from 1978 the sense is unambiguous: “In other words the ground was cleared for a grand bargain in which everyone might obtain some desired object” (Martin Pugh, “Electoral reform in war and peace, 1906-18” (Routledge, 1978), p. 77). Wherever the term originates, it doesn’t go back much farther than that. But I can’t ignore a much earlier instance in Life magazine (January 4, 1954): “There is one other reason why the U.S. tariff belongs at the center of the grand bargain we hope to strike [with Europe]. Apart from money, it is the only major weapon we have left.” Doesn’t talk of tariffs sound quaint?

In the olden days, the phrase popped up occasionally as a way to say “getting a lot for one’s money” or “great deal,” and it probably still does. But when we hear it now we think of diplomacy or politics before anything else.


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