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.