American Political Jargon
The grass roots are at war with astroturf. Yellow Dog Democrats become boll weevils and then Blue Dogs. Beltway bandits troll Pennsylvania Avenue in search of earmarks and extenders. Say what? Every subculture has its lingo, but few add secret code faster than the American political class. It coins words and phrases that slice citizens into microcategories, massages language to exploit or temper passions and slings slang to play inside baseball in the corridors of power. Political jargon is mystifying for a reason. For instance, politicians shrink from frank appeals to white voters, but they’re happy to seek support from Joe Sixpack, soccer moms and small-town Americans. When you hear political code words from talking heads it usually means they’re discussing the horse race rather than the issues.
Once the use of political jargon was confined to men in smoke-filled rooms. In today’s 24-hour political news cycle, commentators want to sound like insiders. So these catchphrases (many defined below) are tossed out to the public as soon as they’re invented, with presidential election years providing bumper crops of fresh slang. Pollsters identify voter demographic groups with phrases like NASCAR dads and Wal-Mart moms. Reporters wonder whether a certain candidate has a lane. Commentators go on news programs to do TV hits and slap scoffing nicknames like birther and tree hugger on people whose beliefs don’t match their own. Derogatory terms are also partisan: Conservatives favor hack as an insult for liberals, while liberals use extremist with conservatives. Some catch-phrases reduce a complex idea to a few words. Take dog-whistle politics. That’s the art of rousing one segment of the electorate without waking others (think of shrill tones that canines hear and humans don’t).
The use of right and left for conservative and liberal dates from prerevolutionary France, when the king’s supporters sat to the right of the president in the Legislative Assembly and the pro-democracy forces sat on the left. (A seat at the right hand has been a mark of honor since biblical times.) Small samples of voters’ opinions in the mid-1800s were called straw votes and straw polls, and took their names from tossing a straw into the air to see which way the wind was blowing. Influence became pull in the 1880s and clout in the 1940s. Yellow Dog Democrat, first used in the 1928 presidential campaign by loyal Southern Democrats who said “I’d vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket,” was the forerunner of the more conservative Blue Dog Democrat in the 1980s, a color plucked from the paintings of Louisiana artist George Rodrigue. There was no uniformity in the use of red and blue to color state election-night maps until 2000, when the New York Times, USA Today and the major television networks settled on red for Republican and blue for Democrat. While the nation waited for a Florida recount, former “Late Show” host David Letterman suggested a compromise to “make George W. Bush president of the red states and Al Gore head of the blue ones.” Then in 2004, swing states, coined in the 1950s to describe states that could go either way in choosing between a Republican and Democratic candidate, became known as purple states.
Jargon can be impossible to understand. (What’s a Christian agenda? Feeding the hungry?) Translations are a real challenge. (Pity the poor sign language interpreters.) Shorthand oversimplifies people and issues. (Can’t a hockey mom be a liberal?) The more time spent discussing the horse races, the less time spent discussing the issues, which isn’t helping the democratic process. Yet eventually some political slang becomes understood by almost everyone — spin, leak and pundit — and enriches the English language. For what sounds better, bureaucratic obfuscation or gobbledygook?
The Reference Shelf
- Until his death in 2009, William Safire was America’s chief translator of political jargon in his New York Times columns and in “Safire’s Political Dictionary.”
- More recent translations of political gobbledygook can be found in the book “Dog Whistles, Walk-backs and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang and Bluster of American Political Speech,” by Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.
- Scholastic.com offers a political jargon vocabulary list for U.S. students in grades 6 to 12.
- Oxford Dictionaries breaks down which insults are most used by conservatives against liberals and vice versa.
- While he was public editor of the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, wrote about “the unending battle over political and ideological labels.”
Jonathan Allen contributed to the original version of this article.
First published Oct. 5, 2014
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