Election season is upon us again. We have to suffer through a few months of television commercials and other unpleasantness. Quite a few colorful phrases have become associated with politicians and political candidates. Maybe looking at the meaning and origin of some of them will ease the pain for at least a little while.
Stump speech / up on a soapbox
Politicians running for office have always had to give speeches. To make it easy on themselves, they usually have one speech that sums up their campaign promises, possibly memorize it, and give it over and over at various places.
In the early history of American electoral politics, candidates campaigned in small towns or rural areas that lacked any kind of formal stage. They stood on tree stumps, soapboxes, or anything else that could elevate their heads so they could be seen and heard by the crowd.
Even today, candidates give stump speeches to present their talking points, although they no longer stand on tree stumps. Since they vary so little, they get no press coverage, but the audience gets to hear the candidate in person. And maybe even ask questions.
For some reason, we talk about people getting on a soap box when they talk about politics, but campaign speeches are always stump speeches and not soapbox speeches.
Stumped by a question
It can be dangerous to take questions on the campaign trail. The candidate may not know how to answer. I remember hearing about a city council member being asked what his greatest accomplishments were over his several terms. After an awkward pause, he couldn’t think of any. He was stumped (and finally defeated for reelection).
This phrase, like the previous one, comes from trees, except this time the stump is not a useful tool but an obstacle. The whole eastern part of the US used to be heavily forested. If someone wanted to set up a farm, he had to cut down all the trees and then pull up all the stumps. That was a hard task. Until they could figure out how to accomplish it, the settlers were stumped.
In any kind of debate, everyone wants the last word. When someone breaks in with a comment just as the session is about to end, it’s called a parting shot. “Parting” seems clear enough, but why “shot”?
The phrase appears to come from Parthian shot. The Parthian empire occupied much of the territory of the ancient Persian empire from 247 BC to 224 AD. They developed techniques of firing arrows on horseback. It devastated enemy infantry. When enemy cavalry pursued, the Parthians pretended to retreat, then fired backward at full galop to kill their pursuers.
Parthian, a now unfamiliar term, soon enough morphed into parting. A politician’s parting shot doesn’t kill anyone, but it does kill anyone’s possibility of a reply.
Dead set against
Politicians of one party may be dead set against policies of the opposition party. “Set against” has had the meaning of “opposed” since the fifteenth century. “Dead” often takes the meaning of completely or utterly in such other expressions as dead wrong, dead easy, or dead giveaway. I haven’t been able to find when that usage started.
This term is the most recent of the political phrases in this post. The fullest explanation comes from a column by William Safire. “Spin a yarn” as in tell a story is fairly old, but only in the 1950s did “spin” take on the meaning of deceive or deception. As a noun, “spin” may come from a baseball pitcher putting spin on the ball to make it break away from a straight line with intent to deceive the batter.
Likewise, “doctor” as a verb can mean something dishonest. A dishonest accountant may doctor the figures. Spin doctor seems analogous with the more respectable play doctor, that is, professional playwright who helps another improve a weak script before opening night.
Using the Nexis database, Safire identified two editorials as the source of spin doctor. The first appeared in the New York Times on October 21, 1984, the day of a Reagan-Mondale debate. The editorialist predicted what would happen as soon as it ended:
A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates. . . .
Four days later, Elisabeth Bumiller, writing in the Washington Post, deleted the capitalization and defined the term as “the advisers who talk to reporters and try to put their own spin, or analysis on the story.”
The term caught on. After all, spin doctors still ply their craft at every opportunity.
Political candidates have long served up falsehoods, or, at least, have been accused of it. They hire spin doctors to help spread them.
“False” in the sense of deliberately untrue, fake, incorrect, mistaken, or treacherous comes from Old English. “Hood” has nothing to do with a head covering. It comes from the now obsolete Old English word “hade,” which meant a person, state, or condition. As a suffix, -hood attaches to several other nouns to make such compounds as childhood, manhood, priesthood, etc.
So “falsehood” has been a part of the English language from earliest times. After all, it describes something unavoidably part of being human.
Grain of salt
What does it mean when we take campaign promises with a grain of salt?
We use salt as a seasoning to make food taste better. But it only takes a little. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder, in Natrualis historia 77 A.D.) translated an earlier document that implied a grain of salt in a particular compound could help ward off poison.
When we take someone’s words with a grain of salt, we might accept them but maintain some skepticism about their truth.
When candidates make vague statements, reporters try to pin down what they mean.
Pin as the name for something to fasten things in place appears to have entered Old English from a Latin word for feather. Feathers, after all, come to a point, and a pointed object that holds a piece of paper to a soft surface might have reminded people of the point of a feather.
The verb meaning to fasten something with a pin is attested from the middle of the fourteenth century. Figurative uses occurred as early as the middle of the sixteenth century. The sense of pinning a person down to make escape impossible first appeared in about 1740. The sense of pinning down as defining or clarifying only came about in about 1951.
Sometimes, a challenger defeats an incumbent. In American politics, there is a time lag between the election and when newly elected officials begin their terms.
National elections take place in November. The new Congress only convenes in early January. The inauguration of the President happens later in the month. So the old Congress and outgoing President remain in office for at least two months after the election. So we refer to a lame duck Congress or President.
Actually, the term originally had nothing to do with politics but stock exchanges. We are familiar with bears and bulls, but the London stock exchange of the eighteenth century also used the term lame duck. Horace Walpole explained it in a 1761 letter. It referred to an investor who defaulted on a loan and so to speak, had to waddle out of the exchange.
The term jumped the pond and soon broke out of the stock exchanges. The Congressional Globe referred to “broken-down politicians” as lame ducks in 1863. Other newspapers took up the phrase.
In 1926, the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan ran an editorial titled “Making a Lame Duck of Coolidge.” If the Democrats took over the Senate in that year’s election, the editorial opined that it could render Coolidge ineffective for the last two years of his term. In other words, this particular usage of lame duck doesn’t refer to the period of time between an election and the new congressional session and presidency.
At the time, the new terms started March 4. That left several more weeks after the election than we have now. The long gap between Herbert Hoover’s defeat in 1932 and Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration during Depression conditions spurred passage and ratification of the 20th amendment to the Constitution. It changed the date to January 20, which still gives the new President a chance to fill out his cabinet and make other preparations for office.
Meanwhile, lame duck politicians still have all the legal powers of their office and can still act—or as opponents claim, work mischief.