Tag Archives: politics
(1980’s | academese (economics) | “cautious”)
This expression carries a couple of odd dichotomies considering how straightforward it appears. The most obvious pertains to that which it modifies; either persons or corporate bodies — whatever the Supreme Court says, they’re not the same — may be risk-averse, though presumably the risk-aversion of a corporation is ultimately traceable to individuals, whether executives or independent shareholders. More interesting is the fact that risk-averseness may proceed from two entirely different kinds of experience. A conservative corporate board avoids sudden shifts and grand initiatives because they feel prosperous; there’s no incentive to rock the boat. Yet it is a tenet of pop psychology that those who have lived through times of deprivation are suspicious of all but the safest investments, and, in extreme cases, may refuse even to keep their money in banks. (Both sides have in common assets to protect; if you have nothing to lose, there’s no point in being risk-averse.) But then there’s an absent dichotomy that one might naively expect to find in an expression beloved of bankers: the distinction between sensible risk likely to pay off and a crazy scheme. The risk-averse will stay away from both, desiring only the steadiest and safest.
The expression comes out of the discipline of economics and was most used originally in finance, starting in the sixties and becoming commonplace by the eighties. Soon it came to be used often of politicians and lawyers. Among corporations, insurance companies attract it the most; their risk-aversity comes from a visceral understanding of actuarial tables. Yet any stodgy company merits the term. Slowly but surely over time, it has spread into other kinds of prose, with movie reviewers and even the odd sportswriter resorting to it nowadays. More kinds of writers use it to describe more kinds of people — it’s not just for stockholders any more. The point of the compound seems to be neutrality; it strives to avoid any imputation of prudence or cowardice, and largely does, as far as I can tell.
In a previous post I remarked on the curse of capitalism — if one guy works harder, everyone has to work harder — and risk-aversitude bears the seeds of a different manifestation of it. In competitive markets, each company watches the innovations of others like a hawk. When they succeed, the other competitors follow; when they fail, everyone else drops plans to do something similar. Television works this way, though maybe less so now, when there are so many networks (an obsolete word, I know). Any change — introducing a new character into a popular series, or a new show about a controversial subject — carries with it a chance that your audience will flee in terror. But if it pays off, your competitors take note and resolve to do the same damn thing, backed up by shareholders who noticed that it made big profits for the other guy. Within a season or two, everyone is sick of the no-longer new gambit, and most of the imitators have made no headway. Whereupon they lose advertisers, another risk-averse group famously shy of causing offense, taking the money and running at the first sign of any immoral or objectionable acts that might result in lost market share. (Bill O’Reilly is only the latest in a very long line of such embarrassments.) Sometimes, what looks safe turns out to be dangerous. Risk avoidance, like any other strategy, is subject to misuse born of misunderstanding or bad timing, whether by the humblest investor or the loftiest board of directors.
(1980’s | athletese | “bow,” “youthful exuberance,” “rubbing it in”)
I’m not quite sure when the custom originated of taking a victory lap after a race. The first instances of the phrase I’ve found turn up in the context of auto racing in the fifties and sixties, but runners have probably been taking them at least that long. (Victory laps are reserved for runners and drivers; horses are spared.) For all I know the Lacedaemonians or Athenians made an extra circuit of the stadium after trouncing the other, and being Greek, they must have had a word for it. The purpose of the act seems simple enough: it gives the adrenaline a little time to subside and the athlete a little time to soak up adulation. As late as 1980, the expression was restricted to track, racing, or occasionally non-athletic contests, like the Miss America pageant, already a small deviation from the literal.
In its figurative sense, the term is used most often by political journalists, though not exclusively; musicians and fashion designers may take them, for example. (In student slang, a “victory lap” refers to a year of high school or college beyond the usual four.) The first specifically political use I found appeared in the Washington Post, describing Reagan’s meetings with assorted government officials after he won his first term in 1980 (he pledged “cooperation with all,” as new presidents customarily do). Non-racing athletes also rated the term around the same time; I was somewhat startled to discover that as early as 1983 Reds’ catcher Johnny Bench’s last season was referred to as a “victory lap.” When a well-known athlete announces retirement far enough in advance, he may reap respectful send-offs at opponents’ stadiums as well as his own. Sometimes it’s called a “victory tour” to give the whole exercise a grander sound; either way, it’s all about adoring crowds, which is what politicians are after, too. Even today, “victory lap” denotes the acts of elected officials more often than not. As far as I know, neither man used the term, but the post-election travels of both Obama and Trump were widely described as “victory laps”: Trump’s thank-you tour and Obama’s last round of visits to European capitals. In the latter case, the phrase didn’t evoke any particular triumph so much as a sense that it was Obama’s last chance to talk up his achievements.
The rise of this expression in political journalism has given it an unsavory connotation. Victory laps used to be joyful celebrations, perhaps not always spontaneous, but at least a moment of innocent exultation shared by athlete and audience. A certain amount of self-congratulation was involved, to be sure. But the politician’s victory lap generally has more to do exaggerating an achievement or rubbing salt in the wounds of the defeated. It is a thoroughly calculated gesture, at worst malicious and at best indulged in purely for its own sake. Politicians are forever being taken to task for taking crass advantage of such opportunities for self-promotion, either because the victory is illusory or because the victor is crude and ungracious. That tendency hasn’t changed and seems unlikely to.
(1990’s | journalese (arts? politics?) | “forget (temporarily),” “(have it and) lose it”)
I’m not very rigorous about it, but in everyday conversation I try to avoid using the kind of new expressions I write about here, just as I try to avoid using such new expressions in posts except to refer to them directly. But this one is an exception, and I catch myself using it fairly often. It has a host of predecessors. Probably descended directly from “draw a blank on” (be unable to remember whatever it is), it also recalls “blank look” and “let your mind go blank” (or the more involuntary “my mind is a blank”). The word implies a temporary but vertiginous mnemonic malfunction, a moment of vacuity that may lead to a deer-in-the-headlights look. A related verb is “blank out” in its intransitive sense, though that may cover a longer time span. “Blank on” means forget something and then recover it, a short-term lapse, more like a senior moment. It may also mean, on occasion, “fail to respond.” (“Shooting blanks” means something entirely different. “To blank” in sports lingo normally refers to holding the opposing team scoreless. Then there’s that charming if now unnecessary euphemism, “blankety-blank.” It is one of those linguistic oddities that “blank,” descended from the French word meaning “white,” looks and sounds much more like “black.”) “Blank on” has so many ancestors that some don’t even involve the word “blank”; doesn’t the phrase “(totally) blanked on it” remind you of “bank on it”? I continue to maintain, without proof, that such phonological resemblances influence new entries into the language.
One does hear occasional variations in meaning when this expression is used, but they never seem to catch on or persist. I saw this sentence recently in a food column in the Dayton Daily News: “Pasta is always a conundrum as a side dish. I want to pencil it into my weekly meal plan, but then I blank on how to sauce it: Cream? Tomato? Lots of cheese?” Here the emphasis falls on inability to choose among alternatives rather than failing to remember them. This usage may prove a solitary exception to the rule, but the contretemps is one we find ourselves in often enough that another word for it may be welcome.
The verb really did not exist before 1980, as far as I can tell. It started to turn up occasionally afterwards; in one of the first uses I found Reagan was the subject of the verb, and this may be yet another expression to which his presidency gave a boost, on the strength of his well-known absent-mindedness rather than policy initiatives. It had entered the language pretty definitively by 1995, often used by politicians and press secretaries, but actors also use it a lot. During the latest presidential campaign, it quickly became the standard verb to denote Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s inability to address the significance of Aleppo. As is often the case when a new phrase resembles an old one, or several old ones, the trail into everyday language is not well-blazed and it may be impossible to determine, even in retrospect, how it wormed its way in.
(1980’s | journalese (politics); | “lambaste,” “lash out at,” “rap”)
(2000’s | computerese? | “snowed under,” “overburdened”)
If you persist in associating slamming with doors, home runs, telephones, or fists on the table, you are behind the times. If you think of poetry or dancing, you’re in better shape, but the verb has taken on two intriguing and non-obvious definitions since 1980, both of which are technically transitive, but one of which is generally used in a way that disguises its transitivity, to the point that it may not be transitive at all any more — more like an adjective. To be fair, only doors and home runs got purely transitive treatment in the old days; telephones and fists required an adverb, usually “down,” although Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, sometimes wrote of a telephone receiver being “slammed up,” which may reflect an older usage or may have been idiosyncratic. Sometimes a preposition is required, usually “into,” as in slamming a car into an abutment. (But you might also say the car slammed into an abutment.) That’s if you neglected to slam on the brakes.
“Slam” today means “attack” or “harshly criticize,” while “slammed” means overwhelmed by work or life in general, when it isn’t merely serving as a past participle. The former emerged first, before 1990 — I found very few examples before 1980 — primarily in political contexts, though it could also be used to talk about entertainment, as in slamming an actor, or his performance. It appears to have been more common in England and Australia; I doubt it originated there but our anglophone cousins may have taken it up faster than we did. “Slammed” came along later; I found only a few examples before 2000, mainly among computer jockeys.
How are the two meanings related? They both rest on deliberate infliction of metaphorical violence, obvious when one politician slams another, less so when one feels slammed “at” or “with” (not “by”) work. When I first encountered that usage, I understood it to mean the boss had assigned a whole bunch of work without recognizing that the employee already had too much to do. That doesn’t seem particularly true any more. “Slammed” no longer automatically imputes malice — if it ever did — and need not suggest anything other than adverse but impersonal circumstances. Gradually it has spread so that it need not refer strictly to having too much to do; in recent years it has developed into a synonym for “exhausted.” It has somewhat more potential for expansion than “slam,” which has not strayed from the basic idea of heated verbal assault.
Is there a direct link between the two? We might expect to discern a path from the older meaning to the newer, but how would it work? The boss can excoriate your performance, or he can dump too many tasks on you, but they would seem to be separate operations. If you’re no good to begin with, why would the boss ask you to louse up still more projects? It’s a compliment if the boss piles work on you, not an insult. The linguistic pathways that led to these two recent additions to the dictionary may remain mysterious, but there should be no confusion about why they have become so popular in the last thirty years. Our pleasure in believing the worst of each other has led inescapably to uglier discourse, offering numerous opportunities to use the older verb. On the job front, whatever productivity increases we’ve wrung out of the workforce since 1970 have come from longer hours and fewer people; so those who still have a job must work harder. Conditions favored harsher language, and there was versatile “slam(med)” to fill the gap.
(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.
(1980’s | businese | “sure thing,” “fait accompli”)
“Done deal” always makes me think of the mob expression “made man.” The alliterative spondee lends both expressions the necessary sense of finality and irrevocability. I don’t know of any connection between “done deal” and organized crime; the earliest uses of the term I was able to find come out of the financial industry, soon absorbed into political discourse. As you might expect given its business origins, “deal” clearly refers to transactions, not cards, although I can imagine a casino employee responding to a poker player’s complaints with “Shut up — it’s a done deal.” Newsweek noted in 1985 that the phrase was a favorite of Treasury Secretary James Baker, and such early patronage by politicians favored its fortunes; there’s no doubt “done deal” is as useful in politics as in banking (or the Mafia, for that matter). Even today, the phrase turns up most often in financial and political news — not that they’re different. “Done deal” has now come to be used more often, if not predominantly, in the negative, to caution us that there’s no guarantee the contract will be completed as advertised (e.g., “this is not a done deal”).
“Done deal” originally referred to business maneuvers, but as politicians picked it up it came to mean any sort of dead certainty (a little like “slam dunk,” but used in different situations). A way of saying “we’re not going back” or “you can count on it.” A done deal need not actually be done, but the point is that even if the papers aren’t signed, they will be soon. It does seem to me that “done deal” is often used to refer to a transaction or agreement that is not yet formal or final; once the deal is truly executed, it is no longer necessary to call it “done.”
“Done deal” represents a form of grammatical displacement not uncommon among new expressions. The concept is an old one, so how did we express it in the old days? “Settled,” or more poetically “chiseled in stone.” In a simpler key, “all over.” These are all adjective phrases that cannot serve as subject or object. Commonplace ideas look for new parts of speech to inhabit, and nouns may slip into power where once ruled only adjectives. To some extent I am speaking fancifully in attributing will to words, which are but bits of breath and ink, but if you spend enough time observing the language, it’s easy to slip into the belief that words have life and motive independent of us, their creators but not their controllers.
doesn’t pass the smell test
(1980’s | legalese? bureaucratese? | “is fishy,” “ain’t right,” “doesn’t smell right,” “stinks to high heaven”)
The primary characteristic of the “smell test,” I suppose, is that it does not measure or evaluate anything that can be rigorously defined. It’s a more or less instantaneous reaction to circumstances that tells you whether to go further or not. And it usually is an ethical test. Passing the smell test means you are on the up-and-up; to do otherwise means your motives or methods are questionable, or worse. An important characteristic of the smell test is that it is anterior to other kinds of questions that might need to be asked. Deciding that an explanation or proposal doesn’t pass the smell test means you need not go any further to evaluate other aspects of the set-up; you simply turn up your nose and go home. It has failed to meet a minimum standard of credibility or honesty.
Even though it is possible to pass a smell test, the phrase is used far more often in the negative — so much so that while it is very easy to think of idiomatic equivalents to “doesn’t pass the smell test,” it’s much harder to come by conventional expressions that mean the opposite. It would be more economical to have a new expression that fills in a gap instead of lapsing into a well-worn groove, but many recent additions to our vocabulary are unnecessary, if not unwanted.
“Smell test” has a more literal meaning: evaluation of olfactory acuity (not very common) or any examination conducted by means of smelling (less uncommon). An example would be sniffing a sample of the grain harvest to see if it’s moldy or otherwise contaminated. The inspector’s nose must decide if the wheat has something wrong with it that makes it unfit to eat. This appears to be a direct ancestor of our more figurative use, since the same operation and results are at work. The odor is off, so we declare the batch unusable and cast it aside.
I found exactly one example of “doesn’t pass the smell test” before 1980 in LexisNexis. The phrase seems not to have taken hold for several years after that. It was used now and then during the eighties, nearly always in legal or political contexts. In a New York Times article (1988), an attorney named Edward Costikyan credited the expression to a colleague, but it seems likely that the phrase had been around for a decade or more by then. There doesn’t seem to have been a definite moment that catapulted “smell test” into everyday language. A few people liked it and used it as a handy way to refer to a kind of quick and final gut reaction that (usually) warned you away from a crime, scam, or cover-up. Maybe it’s obvious to everyone; maybe you have to know something about a particular field or business to detect the problem, but either way, you know it when you see it. Maybe you can’t give a well-defined reason, but you don’t need one with a smell test — a feature that makes it easy to abuse. For the most part, though, “smell test” does not seem to have become a synonym for arbitrary or prejudicial conduct (e.g., your job application didn’t pass the smell test because your name is Takisha). It still has a faintly commendable ring, evidence of an active sense of right and wrong and a pure heart rather than a means of getting rid of people or projects you didn’t like anyway.
show daylight between
(1980’s | athletese | “distance oneself from,” “move away from,” “disagree with”)
Now primarily a political term and has been for at least twenty years. It comes out of equestrian sports: space between rider and saddle or between two horses on a track. It goes back a long way among other athletes as well; Lighter found citations as far back as 1903 in sports talk. When a running back sees daylight, he’d better gain some yardage. Before that, “daylights” could mean “eyes” or “guts” (as in beating the daylights out of someone), an odd pairing. (“Lights” is a very archaic term for lungs, as in “liver and lights.”) Daylights plural and daylight singular don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other.
In sports lingo, “daylight” just means there is a gap between two things: a baseball and a foul pole, say, or two defenders. When you see light you know the objects aren’t touching. That particular meaning was next adopted into politics; by 1980, political figures felt free to use “daylight” in the athlete’s sense. By 1990, executives had it in their arsenals, too. Today, it is still primarily the property of athletes and politicians; according to LexisNexis, it turns up infrequently in any other context. Among athletes, “daylight” might be good or bad, according to the circumstances. But in politics, “daylight” always indicates antagonism of some kind. If it’s someone you want it known that you’re in conflict with, you may “put” or “create” daylight between yourself and the other. When an official wants to affirm unity with another official, she says there is “no daylight” between them. It can exist (or fail to exist) between organizations or countries, too.
Politicians, magpies that they are, love to steal the characteristic expressions of athletes, just as they love to hijack military jargon. I have covered at least half a dozen examples: payback, you’re history, raise the bar, slam dunk, punt, game changer, man up, and there are a few more that are less clear-cut. Politicians, especially male ones, may feel a toughness deficiency and look for ways to cover it up. Taking expressions from athletes and soldiers exploits their generally acknowledged masculine superiority and delivers to the audience an (often unmerited) impression of strength, vigor, and determination. I’ve noted before that politicians like to draw on military vocabulary, but their yen for athletese may also be worth exploring. There are other factors at work: “daylight” sounds like a pleasant, uplifting word, and the way it veils animosity also makes it attractive to the politically inclined.
“Daylight” should not be confused with “sunlight” or “sunshine,” words that in political discourse are used to talk about openness or transparency in government proceedings. The use of “daylight” in such a context would suggest a slip of the tongue or confusion on the part of the speaker.
(1990’s | militarese, bureaucratese | “post-war boom”)
I was surprised to learn that “peace dividend” began to crop up as we were ending the Vietnam War by expanding it into the rest of southeast Asia. According to the Congressional Quarterly, the phrase was born in 1968, as pressure mounted to end the war, and Nixon won the election partly on the strength of a promise to do so — neither the first nor the last of his brazen lies. It occurred to a number of people that we would save a lot of money if we weren’t garrisoning a huge army and manufacturing and destroying vast arsenals of weapons. If we were to spend that money, or part of it, on education, infrastructure, clean air and water, or other components of the much-maligned general welfare, it would be analogous to dividends from stocks and bonds (in fact, the analogy is very weak, but there’s no rule that says new expressions have to be plausible). It’s worth noting that the phrase does not refer to more general benefits conferred by the cessation of conflict; it nearly always has a purely economic cast. It didn’t really get popular until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; for five or ten years after that, we heard a lot about the peace dividend that would arise from the end of the Cold War. Anybody seen it?
The phrase rarely takes metaphorical uses, although soon-to-be former New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton has used it to talk about improved community relations following a drop in stop-and-frisks and other small-time arrests. Another meaning did emerge briefly, though it never gained much traction, after the Camp David accords of 1978 between Israel and Egypt. One of the means we used to get the parties to agree was to promise lots of military aid to both sides, which inspired some commentators to talk of a “peace dividend” to Israel and Egypt. A kind of bribe, in other words, to give both sides incentive to agree to a rather unpalatable set of conditions. (Arms manufacturers and their shareholders received quite literal dividends as well, but that was not pointed out in the mainstream press.) One can find examples from the late seventies and the early eighties, but that sense of the phrase was never more than a distant runner-up.
The end of the Cold War marked the last time the peace dividend played a significant part in U.S. politics. Maybe that’s just because the various wars and police actions* we’ve undertaken were either on a very small scale (former Yugoslavia) or are still more or less in progress (Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism). But the fact is our officials have abandoned alternatives to the national security state. No one considers, much less proposes, eliminating policies that seek to impose our will on the rest of the world whether they like it or not. Concomitantly, evidence that our efforts to do so rarely succeed and often backfire are blotted out of public discourse. There is no alternative to meddling and warfare. And there may be no discussion of the fact that there is no alternative. Naked emperors are as embarrassing as ever.
The problem with the peace dividend is that it is more a fiction of accounting than anything else. It makes sense in theory, but economists are always quick to point out that it won’t amount to much in practice. True, the army never gets much smaller and the pace of armament production never slows for long. But even if they did, government budgeting bears so little relation to personal or family budgeting — where reducing spending in one department might well lead directly to increased spending in another — that savings disappear without a trace into a complex web of interests and bureaucracies. The only way to change that would be to reduce the size of the federal government to something closer to what it was in the early days of the republic, when the population was much, much smaller. Despite a lot of big talk, neither the right nor the left wing has any interest in doing so, or any idea of how to go about it.
* Remember that phrase? It goes back to to the Korean War, when it still made some tradition-minded Constitutional scholars squeamish to refer to a “war” that Congress had not declared.