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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: British culture

play the race card

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “appeal to one’s worst instincts,” “stir up trouble”)

Apparently a Briticism, which came as rather a surprise to me, considering the expression smacks so richly of American penchants for prejudice and poker. The earliest appearances in LexisNexis began in the U.K. ca. 1986 and didn’t show up in U.S. sources until 1990, though it took root very quickly (see penchants noted above). No hits from any country in Google Books before 1985, either. I would love to have a fuller understanding of the origin of “play the race card.” Few expressions have a clear origin or single inventor, but normally one finds isolated early examples preceding a flowering, or similar expressions serving as transitional forms. (In this case, an example might be Nixon’s references to playing the China card, presumably part of an old China hand, as one source suggests.) But in this case it seems to have caught on more or less instantly, at least by linguistic standards. Some sources suggest that the O.J. Simpson trial lent it ubiquity in the U.S.

The other surprise came out of the discovery that in those early British instances, and in many early American ones, too, the race card was played by the majority, fomenting suspicion and hatred of a minority group. I’ve grown used to hearing the practice imputed to members of minorities, trying to claim special privileges based on past discrimination. But it was originally a left-wing attack phrase, used of nationalist or anti-immigrant parties in England. Jesse Helms’s 1990 campaign for Senate against Harvey Gantt (who was African-American) ran an ad accusing him of favoring racial quotas, whereupon Helms was condemned for “playing the race card.” It worked; he came from behind to win a close election. By 2008, Republicans routinely accused Obama of the tactic; actually, right-wingers are happy to claim anyone, black, white, or red all over, is playing the race card. No matter which side does it, it is more than a breach of etiquette; it is dishonorable, a matter of taking unfair advantage. (It also constitutes a form of intimidation.) Which is a little strange, because in poker (or, more likely, bridge, as Lovely Liz points out), there’s nothing suspect about playing a card; it’s part of the normal course of the game. When transposed into politics, it becomes a low-down act, but maybe that says more about politics than cards.

The expression has spawned a few imitators; one hears occasional references to the “gender card,” “religion card,” “terrorist card,” or other nonce cards — but none as common, or quite as venomous, as “race card.” One rarely acknowledges playing the race card oneself; it is an accusation. Nor does one admire deft use of the race card, even when played effectively. Like negative campaigning, push polling, and plenty of other dubious political practices, everyone deplores it but will happily engage in it if it has any chance of working. Who says bipartisanship is dead?

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foodie

(1980’s | journalese | “gourmet,” “epicure”)

A British import, like “over the top” or “at the end of the day,” this word flared up when a bestseller used it in the title in 1984: “The Official Foodie’s Handbook.” (Only a couple of instances have been found in print before then, at least one of those attributable to one of the authors.) And it meant then what it means now, someone obsessed with cuisine — ingredients, preparation, or both — to the point that it is easy to make fun of them. Although some use the word with pride, non-foodies generally use it with at least a hint of condescension or exasperation. Food is important, and it’s a fine idea to take pleasure in eating it, as anyone who has spent time around an anorexic can tell you. But foodies may do so to such an exaggerated degree that non-initiates can’t really take them seriously. Their raptures often come across as forced and stagey, more a matter of competing with each other than expressing a genuine appreciation for the gust and lore of their aliment. Nearly all of us delight in taking pretentious know-it-alls down a peg, so we are prone to suspect that most of these people haven’t the least idea what they are talking about. And we are bound to be right a high percentage of the time. (Urban Dictionary offers some sulfurous definitions of the term along those lines.) The most likely antecedents were “preppie” and “yuppie,” words that had taken hold only a few years earlier (“Foodie” authors Ann Barr and Paul Levy alluded directly to “The Official Preppie Handbook” in their title). My first thought was that “Trekkie” lurks in the background. It conveys the same sense of fervid, fanatical devotion that “foodie” does — far better than “preppie” or “yuppie.” I don’t know how common “Trekkie” was in England, though.

Another reason this word is so annoying, aside from the people it applies to, is that it partakes of the irritating British habit of taking perfectly useful words and adding diminutive or cutesy suffixes, hacking off syllables as needed. (The British have a long tradition of swallowing syllables, but tell me, is “Featherstonehaugh” really pronounced “Fanshaw”? I suspect that was Wodehouse’s idea of a joke, but I’ve never been quite sure, what with Cholmondeley and Marjoribanks.) I ask you: “Chocky” (a piece of chocolate), “preggers” (pregnant), “botty burp” (fart), “brolly” (umbrella), champers (champagne), sarnie (sandwich). There are dozens of them. Then there’s things like “billy-o,” “tickety-boo,” or “moggie” (cat), where the word sounds like it was invented on a particularly obnoxious kids’ television program, even though no orthographic surgery is involved. Are these not the effluvia of a decaying culture? This from the once-proud nation that gave us rhyming slang, which is both amusing and intellectually stimulating, when not downright mystifying. Why does “me old china” mean “old friend”? Well, it’s really “me old china plate,” which rhymes with “mate,” which means “friend.” Then you get rid of the actual rhyming part because that would make it too easy. That’s three steps you have to go through — not for dummies. Rhyming slang is still around, and new terms continue to come forth (as in “britney [spears]” for “beers”), so it hasn’t been supplanted. But it’s a shame that the Brits insist on obscuring a powerful slang tradition with a glut of cloying, infantilized, and frankly unnecessary expressions. Yes, I am a blogger who loves words, but if you call me a “wordie,” I will find you and wreak dire vengeance.

Thanks to my sister for proposing this week’s expression! I was surprised that I hadn’t made a note of “foodie” on any of my rather disorganized lists, but surprises like that keep this blog entertaining, for me, at least.

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