Election Day Soup: Words on Politics and Campaigning

Election Day 2008

Election Day by brooklyntheborough

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by brooklyntheborough]

Happy Election Day! To celebrate, we voted (of course) and rounded up some of our favorite old-timey words about American politics and campaigning.

Rock the vote (or Chris Rock the vote) and enjoy.


“O’Malley dubbed the upcoming barnstorm ‘Super Saturday’ after casting his own ballot Friday afternoon in North Baltimore, where he remains registered despite living in the governor’s mansion.”

Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner, “Parties Rev Up Political Machinery in Maryland to Boost Early Voting Turnout,” The Washington Post, October 22, 2010

To barnstorm means “to travel around the countryside making political speeches, giving lectures, or presenting theatrical performances.” The theatrical performances sense came about first, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, around 1815, “in reference to a theatrical troupe’s performances in upstate N.Y. barns,” while the electioneering sense originated in 1896.

dark horse

“The Missouri Democrat has long been viewed as a possible dark horse candidate for the nomination in case of a convention deadlock.”

Symington Regarded Likely Demo Dark Horse Candidate,” Oxnard Press-Courier, March 30 1956

A dark horse is “one who achieves unexpected support and success as a political candidate, typically during a party’s convention.” The phrase comes from horse racing, where a dark horse is a “a little-known, unexpectedly successful entrant, as in a horserace,” and “dark is used in its figurative sense of ‘unknown.’”


“Every 10 years, states redraw their congressional lines, and often what result are some very oddly shaped districts drawn for political reasons. In recent decades, these so-called ‘gerrymandered’ districts have come to be known by any number of derogatory noms de guerre, including the ‘ribbon of shame,’ ‘earmuffs,’ ‘bug splat,’ ‘flat cat roadkill,’ ‘rabbit on a skateboard,’ and even simply ‘Z.’”

Aaron Blake, “Name That District! (Gerrymandering Edition),” The Washington Post, July 27, 2011

A gerrymander is “an arbitrary arrangement of the political divisions of a State, in disregard of the natural or proper boundaries as indicated by geography or position, made so as to give one party an unfair advantage in elections.” Gerrymander is partially named for Elbridge Gerry, “an American statesman and diplomat,” as a blend of Gerry and the –mander of salamander, “from the shape of an election district created while Gerry was governor of Massachusetts.” For more political blends, see Ben Zimmer’s recent post.

lame duck

“The American constitutional system of checks and balances will be strained for 10 months while we have a lame duck President.”

Lame Duck Presidency Presents Its Hazards,” The Deserest News, April 21, 1952

A lame duck is “an elected officeholder or group continuing in office during the period between failure to win an election and the inauguration of a successor,” or “an officeholder who has chosen not to run for reelection or is ineligible for reelection.” This sense, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, “is recorded by 1878. . .from an anecdote published in that year of President Lincoln, who is alleged to have said, ‘[A] senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck. He has to be provided for.’”

For more words and terms coined by U.S. presidents, check out this list.


“The truth is, that if ‘lobby members’ endeavor to carry their points by threats or bribery or treating or forming combinations, called logrolling, they are reprehensible.”

Kemp P. Battle, History of North Carolina

Logrolling is “mutual aid given by persons to one another in carrying out their several schemes or gaining their individual ends: used especially of politicians and legislators.” The term comes from the “early American practice of neighbors gathering to help clear land by rolling off and burning felled timber,” and the phrase, “You roll my log and I’ll roll yours.”


“Mark Twain had been a ‘mugwump’ during the Blame-Cleveland campaign in 1880, which means that he had supported the independent Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland.”

Albert Bigelow Paine, The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain

A mugwump originally referred to “a person of importance; a man of consequence; a leader,” a sense “long in local use along the coast of Massachusetts and the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound.” The word comes from the “Algonquian (Natick) mugquomp ‘important person,’” which was “derived from mugumquomp ‘war leader.’”

The meaning was extended to “a Republican who bolted the party in 1884, refusing to support presidential candidate James G. Blaine,” and has come to refer to, in general, “a person who acts independently or remains neutral, especially in politics.”

pork barrel

“Denouncing the Congressional ‘pork barrel,’ President Taft to-day urged a change of method in dealing with waterway improvements in the United States.”

Taft Declares War on ‘Pork Barrel,’The New York Times, September 22, 1910

Pork barrel is slang for “a government project or appropriation that yields jobs or other benefits to a specific locale and patronage opportunities to its political representative.” The term originated around 1902 and comes from the idea “of food supply kept in a barrel.” Pork meaning “government funds, appointments, or benefits dispensed or legislated by politicians to gain favor with their constituents,” is older, from around 1862.


“The science of interpreting elections has a dance name: psephology. A shorter, simpler and more accurate title for much election analysis is: fiction.”

David S. Broder, “Deciphering the Meaning of Elections,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 18, 1989

Psephology is “the study of political elections.” The word comes from the Greek psēphos, “pebble, ballot,” from the ancient Greeks’ practice of using pebbles for voting.


“Dorgan knows how to make the best use of such a roorback on the eve of an election and even if I not only deny but prove that they are a fake, I’m afraid the harm will be done.”

Arthur B. Reeve, The Ear in the Wall

A roorback is “a fictitious story published for political effect; a ‘campaign lie.'” The word is named after “Baron von Roorback, imaginary author of Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States, from which a passage was purportedly quoted in an attempt to disparage presidential candidate James K. Polk in 1844.”

straw vote

“A straw vote conducted by the Pathfinder, a magazine devoted to politics, gives Hoover the majority. Popular votes totaled 233,315 for Hoover and 197,408 for Smith.”

Leo R. Sack, “Campaigns Are Gaining Speed, With Tours On,” The Pittsburgh Press, September 17, 1928

A straw vote is “an unofficial vote or poll indicating the trend of opinion on a candidate or issue.” The term came about in 1866 and, according to William Safire et al, “may allude to a straw (thin plant stalk) held up to see in what direction the wind blows, in this case, the wind of group opinion.” Newer are straw poll and straw ballot, both of which originated around 1932, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Political speech, feck, Shakespeare, and more

Welcome to this week’s Language Blog Roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite language blogs and the latest in word news and culture.

In politics and language, Jen Doll at The Atlantic discussed linguistic crutches such as VP Joe Biden’s literally, while The New York Times explored President Obama’s English and other presidential speaking styles (or lack thereof).

Fritinancy’s words of the week were politically inspired: feckless, from John McCain’s statement regarding Obama’s “feckless foreign policy,” and arithmetic, from Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention (“What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: Arithmetic.”).

Lucy Ferriss and Ben Zimmer both examined Mr. Clinton’s folksy rhetoric, while Ms. Ferriss also took a look at pharaoh’s chickens and Mitt Romney, and Mr. Zimmer wondered why everyone from Bill Clinton to Mark Zuckerberg was doubling down.

At Language Log, Ben Zimmer discussed ambiguity in politics and advertising; Victor Mair examined censorship in China; and Mark Liberman delved into mommy and daddy parties and euphemisms and The New York Times. At Lingua Franca, William Germano interpreted signage in the UK; Ben Yagoda explained the nonsensical nature of idioms; and Allan Metcalf analyzed the nasal drawl.

At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Orin Hargraves decoded tech talk while Paul Cook hunted for lexical blends the computational way. Stan Carey put on a sock puppet show, and on his own blog, explored meanings and origins of feck and shared some animated etymology. Johnson told us about the best word ever and place names as shibboleths.

In words of the week, Erin McKean noted the fashionable smasual, smart-casual; Manhattanhenge, “the twice-a-year phenomenon where the setting sun aligns with Manhattan’s roughly east-west street grid”; swellegance, a blend of swell and elegant; and noodnik, “a Yiddish word that comes from a root meaning ‘to bore, to pester.’” Arnold Zwicky posted about micropolitans, “cities [that] do not have the economic or political importance of large cities, but are nevertheless significant centers of population and production.”

Word Spy spotted fiberhood, “a neighborhood that has Internet access via fiber-optic cable”; foodbaby, “a distended stomach caused by overeating”; and mansplaining, “explaining in a patronizing way, particularly when done by a man who combines arrogance with ignorance of the topic.”

Dialect Blog talked about this and that in foreign dialects and the South African ee. The Virtual Linguist looked at canny and uncanny, gender bias in job ads, and predistribution, “an alternative to the policy of ‘redistribution’ … meant to tackle the problem of inequality earlier in the process.”

Grammarphobia gave us a short history of the word wow. Sesquiotica explained around, about, and approximately; the origins of pissant and git; and peplum, “that skirt-like bit that some tops have attached to them at the waist.” Meanwhile, Lauren Conrad listed the ten most mispronounced words in fashion.

In the land of Shakespeare, we got excited about Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing and fell in love with these beautiful cut-paper illustrations of Romeo and Juliet. We were taken with these Scandinavian fairy tale illustrations and these science fiction visual interpretations. We squeed over the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time.

We were intrigued by the idea of a Chinese translation of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and were wowed by these bookstores repurposed from unused structures. We learned about the “hipsterfication” of Australian pubs, organic syntax, some diner lingo, and how to drink like Hemingway. We found out where letters come from. We chuckled over Charles Dickens’s library of fake books (Bowowdom sounds like a bestseller) and laughed out loud at this Fred Armisen-as-Penny Marshall book trailer.

That’s it for this week!

This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Lying, Eastwooding, YOLO

Welcome to this week’s Language Blog Roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite language blogs and the latest in word news and culture.

In case you didn’t know, it’s election season. Robert Lane Greene at Johnson took a look at the intricacies of political speechmaking. At Lingua Franca, Ben Yagoda discussed the media’s reluctance to call a lie a lie while William Germano deliberated on Eastwooding and talking to empty chairs. At Language Log, Mark Liberman tallied Chris Christie’s first person pronouns, and Victor Mair translated Jon Huntsman’s Mandarin statement about Mitt Romney.

Also at Language Log, Mark Liberman posted about sign language and weapons, and Victor Mair considered tattoos as communication and creeping romanization in Chinese. Meanwhile, Johnson discussed the Hinglish Project.

Ben Zimmer seized the day with YOLO and told us how the proof got in the pudding. Stan Carey clarified why people misspell just deserts. At Macmillan Dictionary blog, he dialogued on dialects, and Orin Hargraves was reminded of past participles and irregular verbs. At Lingua Franca, Ben Yagoda dropped some f-bombs and other euphemisms; Geoffrey Pullum bemoaned more zombie rules; and Lucy Ferriss connected with the etymology of wifi.

In words of the week, Erin McKean noted benihana, a scooter trick; glamping, glamorous camping; and alexithymia, “difficulty identifying feelings.” Fritinancy’s selections included zombee, “a honey bee that has been parasitized by the ‘zombie fly,’” and smasual, “a portmanteau of ‘smart casual,’ a British description of a style of dress in which ‘smart’ means ‘stylish.’” Fritinancy also snacked on some chips – or is it crisps? – and the Awl served up some writer food from A to Z.

The Virtual Linguist mused on the origin of blue moon. Sesquiotica noodled on canoodle, floated supernatant, and shed some light on triboluminescence. Dialect Blog explored the aristocratic American accent, the speech of old L.A., and ow reduction; assured us that Canada has regional dialects; and wondered if Cockney rhyming slang is Irish.

Superlinguo recognized Tesla’s linguistic contributions, Brainpickings gave a nod to words invented by David Foster Wallace’s mom, and Flavorwire displayed some adorable school photos of famous authors.

We were creeped out by this list of literature’s creepiest devils. We immediately began using this list of 10 stinging British insults, and chuckled over these dirty etymologies and these 19th century synonyms for sex. We learned about the lives of punctuation marks, a brief history of the shortening of neighborhood, and what the Muppets’ Swedish chef is actually saying. We loved this ode to the list and agreed that these are 19 perfect moments in subtitle history (epic thrash metal!).

That’s it for this week! Until next time, trying some Eastwooding. After all, YOLO.