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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton


(2010’s | journalese (politics) | “bigots,” “extremists”)

Hillary Clinton took an old adjective and refashioned it as a noun in her effort to smoke out some of Trump’s less savory supporters — mainly white or male supremacists of one kind or another. The word (more memorable as the full phrase, “basket of deplorables”) and the tactic backfired; Hillary was pilloried for insulting upright middle Americans. The world, liberal media included, promptly forgot the rest of her statement, in which she took pains to distinguish the least respectable of Trump’s supporters from those same upright middle Americans:

“that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

It didn’t do any good, and “deplorables” quickly became emblematic of a campaign rife with missteps.

Last week, I referred to a few of the new expressions Bill Clinton’s administration gave us. Some of the phrases most closely associated with him — “It’s the economy, stupid” or “I feel your pain” — never have made it into everyday language. They remain Clinton’s property somehow, and we use them mainly with reference, ironic or otherwise, to the man himself. It is quite possible that “deplorables” will suffer the same fate: a word everyone grasps but which will never shake free of its origin.


(2010’s | journalese (politics) | “crybaby,” “weakling,” “snotnose kid”)

I don’t recall hearing this term before the election, but it has been making the right-wing rounds for several years — the earliest use I found came from 2011 — often in the expanded form “special snowflake” or “God’s special little snowflake.” Trump’s victory gave gleeful right-wing commentators ample opportunity to advise “snowflakes” to stop whining and admit Trump won. (Bear in mind that many of these commentators still don’t accept the outcome of the Civil War.) I’m no Trump supporter, but I too found a lot of the post-election hyperventilating tiresome. For the first few weeks, we saw a lot of cocooned, inexperienced larvae throwing tantrums ’cause Trump was so darn mean. By my recollection, most of that dissipated by the end of the year, and the word “snowflake” declined in frequency — I haven’t heard it nearly so much in 2017. Maybe it will sink back into relative obscurity. But I think “snowflake” has a much better chance of sticking in everyday language than “deplorables.” It is less closely associated with Trump than “deplorables” is with Clinton, so it’s less likely to be shunted off into the ghetto of expressions we recognize but don’t use outside certain narrow contexts. More decisively, the gusto with which some Trump partisans used “snowflake” suggests that they will continue to reach for it at every opportunity.

It’s an effective insult because it attacks from three different directions. The most obvious, perhaps, is the fragility of the snowflake, so easily dissolved and destroyed. Or if it doesn’t melt, it is entirely subsumed into an inglorious icy mass in which no single flake can be distinguished from the others. Thus, the snowflake is both frail and conformist. Another defining trait of snowflakes is that they are unique, so the term takes a swipe at the self-esteem builders who emphasize the uniqueness (which they equate with wonderfulness) of each child. Maybe it’s not mandatory any more, but “snowflake” still seems to refer most readily to the young and whiny.

There were two earlier usages of “snowflake” that may have had some influence: Donald Rumsfeld’s unofficial memos written as Secretary of Defense, which he recalled “grew in number from mere flurries to a veritable blizzard,” were called “snowflakes.” The practice of implanting “unused” (that is, created for purposes of in vitro fertilization but ultimately not needed) frozen embryos, allowing infertile women to bear children, gave rise to the term “snowflake babies.” While Rumsfeld’s memos were so called because of their sheer volume (and perhaps because they were printed on white paper), and “snowflake babies” probably had mainly to do with the fact that the embryos were frozen, in the latter case there may also have been an appeal to the fragile, precious nature of the single snowflake. Now the expression has taken a derisive turn from which it may never recover.

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dog whistle

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “coded (signals),” “speaking to people in their own language,” “telling people what they want to hear”)

In its figurative political sense, “dog whistle” first began to turn up in quantity around 2000, primarily in the Australian press. When used down there, it was generally identified as an American expression. I’m not saying they were wrong — though in 2005, William Safire quoted an Australian reporter suggesting that the phrase may have originated in Australia after all — but LexisNexis coughs up precious few examples in America, or anywhere else, before 1995. None, really; the Washington Post defined the “dog whistle effect,” a pollster’s term, in 1988: “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.” (I’m not sure if this remains a technical term in polling.) In 1995, a House Republican spake thus of Newt Gingrich: “When Newt and the others would talk about what was possible, it was like a dog whistle. Some people heard it and some people didn’t. If you were tuned into that frequency it made a lot of sense.” And that, of course, is the essence of the dog whistle. One group gets it full force and the others are blissfully unaware of the hidden message, giving the in group the added pleasure of putting one over on the uninitiated. If you want to express covert solidarity, use words and phrases that have special meaning for the target, but not for others. In fact, the phrase didn’t blossom in the U.S. until shortly after George W. Bush took office; he wooed evangelicals with snatches from hymns or Bible verses intended to elude listeners not versed in Christian vocabulary. Bush used religious rhetoric in much more open ways, but he also found subtler means to reassure that reliable chunk of his base. Dog whistles, in Australia as in the U.S., get more of a workout from politicians on the right — wonder why that is — so it’s telling that the concept was associated early on with Gingrich and his merry men.

The New York Times, not normally an outlier when it comes to contemporary usage, nevertheless defined “dog-whistle politics” thus in 2005: “handful of emotive issues that will hit voters like a high-pitched whistle,” ignoring the point of the metaphor but not exactly inaccurate, either. In the more regulation sense outlined above, the phrase has always been more common as an adjective, most often modifying “politics,” but it is also available as a noun. While it is possible to use it in other contexts, it is a political term par excellence. It captures one of the many kinds of duplicity required of politicians, though it’s more roundabout than the usual “I know an easy way to make everything better, and it won’t cost you a penny.”

In case anyone is wondering if the presidential election may have prompted this week’s musings, maybe you’re right. But for the most part, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles, and that was one of the most extraordinary features of his campaign. Hillary did use dog whistles to talk to investment bankers, but she certainly made no effort to convince coal miners that she had a deep connection with them. It’s not entirely true that Trump dispensed with dog whistles, but coyness is not one of his attributes — which doesn’t mean he’s honest — and he did best when he trumpeted the yearnings and grievances of the white right. If the dog whistle loses its raison d’être in our politics, Trump will get the credit — or blame. Dog whistles are dishonorable, but they are also an acknowledgment of an accepted range of political discourse that does not permit slander, baseless accusations, or entirely fabricated “facts” to become the stuff of campaigns. When Trump wanted to fire up his base, he didn’t bother with the subliminal. And it worked better than anything else Republican presidential candidates have tried lately. Maybe all it proves is that many Republican voters don’t like indirect messages because they’re too dumb to interpret them. Give ’em a little rhetorical red meat, and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

Thanks as always to lovely Liz from Queens, who has contributed countless expressions to the blog and continues to do so. My cup runneth over.

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stick a fork in him, he’s done

(2000’s | journalese | “he’s dead in the water,” “his goose is cooked,” “(you can) forget about him” “it’s (all) over”)

One of those top-down terms, like “smartest guy in the room.” It owes its celebrity to the fact that it is used by prominent people about prominent people, so we all have to know what it means even if we seldom use it in our humdrum everyday lives.

From the earliest sightings in the late eighties until now, this phrase has most readily been directed at politicians or athletes. Ann Richards, then governor of Texas, seems to have been responsible for the first widely-noticed use of “stick a fork in him, he’s done” in her dismissal of George Bush’s candidacy in October 1992, a few weeks before the election. (The earliest I found in LexisNexis dated from 1987 in Spin magazine, and it had nothing to do with politics.) Other political figures who felt the lash: Fidel Castro, Bob Dole (1996), Hillary Clinton (2008), and a bunch of people you’ve never heard of. The phrase seemed poised to take off in 1996, the second election in a row for which the Republicans put up a lackluster candidate. Like “soccer mom,” it looked ready to jump into the mainstream. Yet LexisNexis coughs up one solitary example between the end of 1996 and 2000. As you might expect, the phrase turns up more often in election years, and sportswriters have grown more fond of it over time, but it has not become as frequently used as many other expressions I have considered.

By definition, the phrase applies to losers. It’s a way to call someone a loser without using the word, one reason politicians like it (see also “humbled,” “unintended consequences” and “Joe Sixpack“). It is used only when it is clear that not only is the target hopelessly behind in the contest, he can’t possibly catch up. Dewey would not have used it against Truman in 1948 because the race never got lopsided enough. Not only does the phrase carry an unmistakable stamp of finality, it crows and gloats as well. It is not at all unusual for the phrase to carry a healthy dose of contempt.

Chronologically, “stick a fork in him” follows two other pithy dismissals (say that five times fast), “he’s history” and “he’s toast.” Actually, both of those expressions feel most comfortable in the second person, but they work in the third (very unusual in the first person, however). “You’re history” came along first; I remember learning it during my freshman year in college from my more sophisticated classmates. “You’re toast” came in a few years later. Like “stick a fork in him,” (and “goose is cooked”), it relies on a culinary vehicle. Because if it’s not dead when you start cooking it, it is by the time you’re done. Both of these vigorous expressions share the note of finality, and the note of extreme prejudice, that we noted above in “stick a fork in him.” Notably, the latter expression cannot be used in the second person, but it can be used in the first and is most commonly used in third person. So in pronominal terms, it complements “you’re history” rather neatly.

The reason you put a fork in a roast is to determine whether it is sufficiently cooked. But a canny politician uses the expression only when he knows his opponent is completely done. You don’t do it to find something out, you do it for spite — not unlike “twist the knife.” Utensils make for treacherous figures of speech.

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selfie (2010’s | internese | “self-portrait”)
twerk (2010’s | journalese (music) | “shake your booty”)

These words are too new to say much about, but they both effloresced violently recently, and they have occasioned no end of cultural commentary. Their chronological pattern is similar: sporadic appearances at best before 2012, followed by cautious acceptance, followed by the great outburst that was 2013. “Selfie” was named Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries last year, while “twerk” was flung into everyone’s consciousness by the lovely, infamous Miley Cyrus. “Twerk” probably has been around longer; it shows up a few years earlier in LexisNexis (hardly the most promising source of information on such an expression, I’ll admit). I’ve read it said that “twerk” goes back to the nineties, but I wasn’t frequenting the right clubs and can’t say one way or another. No one disputes that the word is characteristic of African-American youth culture; it may be a corruption of the exhortation “work it,” shouted to dancers. The Oxford blog records the first instance of “selfie” in 2002 in Australia and posits an Australian origin (I can add that an unusually high percentage of hits in LexisNexis come from Australian periodicals).

“Twerking” is a form of dancing, solo or with a partner, kind of a specialized, advanced form of what we used to call “shaking your booty.” You bend at the knees and grind or gyrate your tuchus. I’m not sure when it started showing up in rap lyrics (the Hip Hop Word Count doesn’t seem to be available), but that was about the only place it showed up for a long time. Around 2010, a rapper named Kstylis released some songs (and videos) with the sole purpose of encouraging female listeners to twerk. He seems to have played a role in the diffusion of the term, right around the same time it started turning up in disapproving editorials. (Coincidence? You be the judge!) It didn’t really become the property of mass mainstream culture until Miley Cyrus appropriated it last year; particularly after her performance with Robin Thicke at the VMA awards in August.

From its humble roots down under, “selfie” — a photographic self-portrait usually taken at arm’s length with a tablet, phone, or digital camera — also took a few years to get established. Hillary Clinton, of all people, gave the word a boost in 2012 in responding to a satirical web site entitled “Tweets from Hillary.” The brainchild of two Washington publicists, TFH lasted just long enough for Hillary herself to take note of it, crediting one of the authors with a “nice selfie.” That seems to have been about the first time anyone with any profile used the word in public. Now the word is almost as common as the thing; here in New York, it’s impossible to walk a block without passing someone smiling inanely into their smartphone. (The practice has cut down quite a bit on the old custom of asking passing strangers to take your picture so you can prove you were in New York.) “Selfie” seems more ripe for adaptation than “twerk.” One clever inventor has come up with a bicycle storage device called the “Shelfie.” A self-portrait taken by a tall, willowy young woman ought to be called a “sylphie.”

These words have come into their own largely due to the rise of social media. Twerking is a Youtube phenomenon, and selfies are inextricably linked with Facebook, either as the easiest way to generate a profile picture (although using any image except your own face seems to be the rule on Facebook) or simply as a place to show your friends what you’ve been up to. In this case, our new networks (net-twerks?) have acted more as megaphones, since both words predated widespread use of social media, but Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest are going to have an effect on our language. The main effect of social media on American English will probably amount to maiming it, but at least we’re getting some new words out of our new toys.

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