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Beltway buzzwords – inside the jargon on Capitol Hill… and beyond (part 1)

Capitol building

A move to Washington D.C as a journalist requires several things. Alongside your plane ticket, map of the city, and Congressional press pass, you’ll also need a knowledge of the myriad terms used on ‘The Hill’ (as all locals call the Capitol), where staffers and wonks mingle with lobbyists and of course the lawmakers themselves… Not to mention the all-powerful POTUS. I imagine foreign journalists in London have to get their head around the lingo of the Westminster village (all those conversations with researchers and bag carriers about early day motions, Private Member’s Bills, and Ten Minute Rule bills…) but in DC, so all pervasive is the business of politics, it seems even those not directly involved will be au fait with the basics. An intriguing mixture of playful, innovative, and imposing, Washington jargon is ripe for a dictionary all of its own.

The people of Washington D.C: from lobbyists to wonks and wonkettes

First we have naming of parts. A place for everything and everything in its place is the rule in Washington – so it’s likely that if you work in anything to do with politics, there’ll be a specific name for you. It may be you’re a simple staffer – a word which the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear began at least as far back as the 1940s as a journalistic term for staff writers on a newspaper, before migrating to other businesses, and finally, in the 1960s, making the leap to Washington where it came to define someone who was on the White House team. Now it’s used to define anybody working on the staff of a Congressman (a term dating back to the 1780s, but then of course applying only to men) or woman.

But perhaps, rather than working for a Senator or Representative, you’re looking to influence them, as a lobbyist? A lobbyist is someone who works – usually in a paid capacity – for a group seeking to influence the passage or defeat of legislation. The name is supposed to stem from the fact that those wanting to bend the ear of President Ulysses S. Grant had to frequent the lobby of the Willard Hotel near the White House, still a notable city landmark, where the great man was wont to enjoy brandy and cigars. He himself is rumoured to have first used the term, referring to ‘those damned lobbyists’… but the current first usage listed in the OED is in 1863, a full six years before President Grant took office, in the British Cornhill magazine. So it seems more likely – sadly for Washington tourists – that the term in fact comes from the lobbies outside the Houses of Commons and Lords in Westminster, where plenty of wheeling and dealing also took place. These days, in any case, most lobbyists seem be based in a particular area of Washington – K Street… So much so that the address itself is often used as synecdoche to mean the lobbying industry as a whole.

But if you’re not working in a lawmaker’s office or seeking to persuade lawmakers, perhaps you’re helping formulate policy for a lawmaker – in which case you’re a ‘wonk’ or a ‘wonkette’. Also used in the UK, the OED tells us one of the first contexts of the term was originally naval, describing a useless young cadet unfamiliar with the elements of his job. But in the US, it began life as ‘a disparaging term for a studious or hard-working person’, before later getting its political meaning of someone ‘excessively concerned with minute points of government policy’. Here in DC, that makes you far from disparaged – instead, you’re in high demand! These are the people well versed in the details of a particular issue, and who help develop strategy and policies on it.

Acronym-obsessed city

If you’re not helping lawmakers formulate policies, maybe instead you’re helping them get elected, by working for a PAC or Political Action Committee – a private group organized to help elect or defeat government officials, or to promote or defeat legislation – usually by raising money. The OED gives the first usage as 1939, but PACs have since evolved into various species, including Leadership PACs – a PAC set up by a member of Congress to support another candidate. Then there are the Super PACs, a more recent phenomenon, which can’t be controlled, established, or influenced by candidates themselves.

But the person around whom all of the Washington power structure revolves is, of course, the figure sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, known as POTUS or the President of the United States. The OED tells us this well-known acronym began life as a newspaper wire and telegraph code, before passing into use among White House staff and eventually being adopted by the general public. It’s also been expanded upon to give us FLOTUS (the first lady), SCOTUS (the Supreme Court), and VPOTUS (pronounced Vee-Potus, for the Vice President.) Not yet dreamed up, but perhaps coming next in an acronym-obsessed city, is GOTUS – Government of the United States…