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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

promise made, promise kept

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “I (she, etc.) kept my (etc.) word,” “I (etc.) delivered”)

Property of politicians from the first, this phrase has several variants which may involve articles, plural nouns, or even linking verbs, but it seems to have settled into a four-word groove and has become a bit of a meme. (A 1981 ad for the perfume Arpège occurred very early in the history of the phrase and may have provided impetus.) A LexisNexis search shows a gradual coalescing around the four-word version during the 1980’s. When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he handed out pamphlets titled “Promises Made, Promises Kept” to staff members; he seems to have been the first president to use the phrase, although I don’t think he ever said it in public. The first politician credited with it in LexisNexis was George Voinovich (1981), then mayor of Cleveland, and it has been a staple ever since among candidates for re-election. Legislators may use it, too, as in the case of House Republicans’ “Contract with America” in 1995, when they boasted of passing all their key legislation in the early days of the 104th Congress. (They blithely ignored the fact that a bill doesn’t actually become law until it gets through both houses and the president, but it’s not like they invented political puffery.) Of course, making good on promises is not the same as making good policy, but in the heat of battle such cool-headed logic may be forgotten. The phrase is no longer the exclusive property of politicians, of course. Certainly by 2000 it was available in several other spheres.

Politicians like the phrase because it forecloses consideration of promises unkept; it’s easy to give the impression that one is simply going down a list, checking things off, and only a churl would point out that certain items are conveniently missing. A number of Christian organizations use the expression, though the best known, the Promise Keepers, borrows and adapts only the second half. Politicians and religious leaders seek to persuade us that they are selfless servants, but the primary note I hear in “promise made, promise kept” is self-congratulation. The phrase almost always bears a prim-lipped smugness that is very difficult to disguise. It also conveys a note of finality intended to convince us that the job is done and it’s no longer necessary to pay attention to the consequences or ask questions. Self-satisfaction dressed up as public service, bragging without the first-person pronoun, AND avoiding discussion of goals unmet? No wonder it’s a politician’s dream.

This tag line has many fathers, or at least putative fathers. The on-line community believes that it goes back to Aristotle, in the form “A promise made must be a promise kept.” I’m no expert on Aristotle, but I do know that the on-line community abounds in dubious attributions. I’ve also seen its paternity assigned to Alexander Hamilton, but in a post-“Hamilton” world, that’s probably inevitable (he also invented the theory of relativity and designed the first mini-skirt, y’know). The twentieth century offers two much more solid examples: Steve Forbes’s line, “A promise made should be a promise kept,” which lacks a certain Aristotelian firmness, and more distant, “A promise made is a debt unpaid,” from Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which was once tremendously popular — my father liked to read it to me, and I can still quote bits of it. Service seems the most likely ancestor, but maybe he stole it from Aristotle.

In spite of myself, I’m in a rut of Trumpisms these last few weeks. This too shall pass, I promise. Back in the nineties, when Trump was mainly a threat to New York real estate, I amused myself by making up names for his most ostentatious buildings: Trump Tower was “pre-Trump-tuous,” the hotel at Columbus Circle was “Trumpalomania,” the tall skinny building near the UN was the “Trumpstrosity,” and the apartment buildings on Riverside Drive that no longer bear his name were collectively “the last Trump.” It all seemed so harmless back then . . . I suppose it was inevitable: America finally elected P.T. Barnum president.

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