On this first day for early voting, I am drawn to the polls and to a book Dave ordered for me, “The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang,” edited by Grant Barrett. Published in 2004, the book’s definitions are more historical than current, but they enlighten nonetheless.
In the Introduction, James Carville and Mary Matalin, familiar politicos, remind us that Washington, D.C., is a “country where the locals speak another language.” The rest of us outside the Beltway that encircles D.C. are called “real people,” those not yet corrupted with “altered perceptions of reality” that affect many professional politicians.
Several essays preface the dictionary entries: “Tongue in Groove: The Blogistan Lexicon,” “Election 2000: Maybe We Should Go Back to a Show of Hands,” “When a Tombstone Isn’t Enough,” and “The -Gate to Scandal,” among other titles. This last title examines all the variations on “Watergate” after the building complex was the scene of the burglary of the offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972 during Richard Nixon’s presidency that ended in his impeachment and resignation. The term first appeared in Time magazine, but it has survived in more than 100 forms since, an oddity in that “gate” at its roots means an opening but then and now means “scandal.” Barrett says that -gate has survived as a suffix “because it fills a need. Attaching [it] to a root word says a scandal is perceived, and that the matter is of such complexity that a shorthand will be required to avoid having to review the details every time it is discussed.”
Some of the less familiar terms Barrett defines include actorvist, a politically involved actor; alderman, a prominent paunch (referring to the stoutness of some aldermen); and attack, in combination forms that include “attack advertising,” “attack dog,” “attack fax,” [today we need to add “attack Twitter”], “attack line,” “attack politics,” and “attack video.” The negativity that pervades current politics still uses these phrases.
In the B section, a few words may be new: bafflegab, confusing or unintelligible speech, doublespeak. The unknown coiner of the word defined it as “Multiloquence, characterized by consummate interfusion or circumlocution or periphrases, inscrutability, incognizability, or other familiar manifestation of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.” Whoa! I need another dictionary to untangle this mess of syllables to find meaning.
The use of “big” in big bench (the United States Supreme Court), big cheese, big fix (systemic corruption or graft), bigfoot (a prominent political journalist or news analyst, anyone or anything dominant), bigfoot as an adjective (to preempt or exercise one’s privilege over others), big league, Big Mo (beneficial momentum), big shot, big stick and big tent (broad policies of an organization which encompass the specific views of its factions, core membership) — all attest to the power and authority that undergird the politics in the nation’s capital.
Blue has political meanings in terms like blue dog Democrat (from paintings by Louisiana artist George Rodrigue, who painted a blue dog in political situations; the meaning was extended to define moderate-to-conservative Democrat House members). Also, blue flu (a protest from police officers and other city workers, claiming to have flu that keeps them from coming to work), blue goose (the blue bulletproof lectern that has a goose-neck microphone) and blue slip (paper representing a senator’s decision on a judicial nomination).
Acronyms, those time and space savers, abound on the DC scene. BOGSAT means policy decisions from a bunch of guys sitting around a table. In one of the essays, Barrett addresses acronyms gone extreme: The Patriot Act — the USA-PATRIOT Act — means Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. The Hebrew word for “life,” chaim, occurred in the CHAIM Act, Comprehensive Holocaust Accountability in Insurance Measure.
Sometimes a new word named for a person enters political jargon, as in the case of Judge Robert H. Bork, a Supreme Court nominee in 1987 during the Reagan administration. Bork’s appointment was denied after a media campaign by his opponents attacked him as sexist, racist, and suspect in his religious views. Another Catholic, ironically, attacked him from the floor.
In a nationally televised speech, Sen. Ted Kennedy said: “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.” To be borked then means to be denied, ousted, accused (sometimes wrongly) or attacked.
A glance in the G section of this dictionary did not reveal a slang term of our current day, gaslighting, the deliberate manipulation of people’s reality to the extent of making them doubt their perceptions. The term derives from Patrick Hamilton’s stage play “Angel Street” of 1938 and films based on it produced in 1940 and 1944 called “Gaslight” in which a husband who has murdered a woman dims the gas lights in the apartment he shares with his wife. When she questions the loss of illumination, he denies that it has happened. Wikipedia offers these signs of gaslighting: withholding information from victims; countering information to fit the abuser’s perspective; discounting information; verbal abuse, usually in the form of jokes: “Horseface”?; blocking and diverting the victims’ attention from outside sources; trivializing the victims’ worth; and undermining the victims by gradually weakening them and their thought process. Sound like anybody we know?
Barrett’s dictionary of political slang makes for fascinating reading even though some of us want to avoid “swamp” fever by steering clear of the Beltway where the D.C. insiders are enclosed in a strange country where truth isn’t always the rule of the day. However, this dictionary helps us seem less like foreigners in alien territory.
Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.