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

Beltway buzzwords – inside the jargon on Capitol Hill… and beyond (part 2)

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Following on from yesterday’s blog post looking at the language used to describe the people of Washington D.C, from staffers to POTUS, Lorna Shaddick continues to explore the jargon of the Hill with lame ducks, slug lines, and Beltway Bandits.

Filibuster: from pirates to politics

With so many people on the Hill involved in the complex process of law-making, it was perhaps inevitable that certain jargon would also evolve to describe and explain the minutiae that go into writing and passing legislation. One term being bandied around a great deal, as the US Congress debates military action in Syria, is ‘marking up’. When TV networks breathlessly announce that a committee is ‘marking up’ a bill, they mean that the proposed piece of legislation is being discussed by a committee, which then considers whether or how to change its language, before it’s considered before the full House or Senate.

This sense of the  phrase ‘mark up’ is relatively new – first listed by the OED as used in 1962 – but one of Capitol Hill’s more famous terms has been around for centuries. The filibuster, originally from a Dutch word, began its life signifying a kind of adventurous pirate who pillaged the Spanish colonies in the West Indies in the 17th century, before morphing to mean anyone who engages in unauthorized and irregular warfare against foreign states. It’s that ‘irregular’ aspect of the word that’s filtered through to Capitol Hill, where the process of a Senator obstructing the business of the assembly by holding the floor continually, speaking non-stop for many hours, is known as a filibuster. The filibusterer usually aims to delay, modify, or defeat a bill that might otherwise pass if a vote were held immediately, and it’s become one of American politics’ most infamous tactics.

The only way to end a filibuster is by cloture – another word that began life outside the US, in France, where it’s also used in the Assemblée Nationale to mean the action of the closing of a debate. In the US, cloture is the only way the Senate can vote to end a debate without also rejecting the measure under consideration.

Another kind of vote is called a roll-call (also the name of a newspaper that’s been covering affairs on the Hill since 1955), a procedure the OED lists as first mentioned in a civilian context in 1838 in the US Magazine and Democratic Review. A roll-call vote sees each Senator call out ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ as the Clerk calls his name, so the names of Senators voting on each side are recorded.

And then of course – quack quack – we come to the lame duck, a phrase often used in the media when referring to a President nearing the end of his second term in office, who cannot be re-elected. But as the OED points out, originally (before 1933) this meant a defeated lawmaker who returned to Washington to carry out the final few months of their term, knowing they wouldn’t be returning in the next Congress. The phrase was used by Horace Walpole in 1761: Do you know what a Bull, and a Bear, and a Lame Duck are? But he is referring to a much earlier use of the term, involving the stock markets. For Mr Walpole, a lame duck referred to investors unable to pay their debts. But while you might see references to bull and bear markets in any contemporary edition of the Financial Times,  ‘lame ducks’ in the financial sense are now a thing of the past. These strange disabled fowl do still occupy the White House every few years or so though.

Do you know the way to Delmarva?

You might have the impression from the terms above that the denizens of Capitol Hill do nothing but spend their time murmuring in strange codes as they hurry from chamber to chamber. That’s probably partly correct – but many do still enjoy the occasional few hours off, and that’s how the city of Washington has developed some slang unconnected with the business of politics itself.

One way to relax after a hard day’s legislating is at that most quintessential of American places – the ballpark. The baseball park, that is. As well as singing along to ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’, looking for your face on the jumbotron (the large screen showing the action, and a word I had not heard before moving to the USA), and cheering on the ‘Nats’ (Nationals, the local team) you can also indulge in a very Washingtonian snack, the half smoke – a spicy half-pork, half-beef hot dog, smothered in onions and chilli sauce, made famous by Ben’s Chili Bowl, a joint beloved of POTUS, among others.

But some hard workers might prefer to get out of DC and go outside the Beltway altogether. This ringroad (formally Interstate 495) has become part of an idiom used all over the US, ‘inside the Beltway’ – signifying affairs that only seem important to those involved in working for the government. The OED gives a perfect example in a quotation from 1986, when Ronald Reagan referred in the Observer newspaper to a ‘Beltway’ scandal – ‘of interest only to people who live in the self-obsessed world inside Washington’s ring road’.  By contrast, ‘outside the Beltway’ has come to mean ordinary US citizens, unfamiliar with the detail of everyday goings-on in the capital. The same road also pops up in the term Beltway Bandits, who sound rather worrying. But they’re not after residents’ wallets, only the government’s. The phrase refers to companies whose headquarters cling like limpets to the outskirts of DC and whose businesses rely on servicing or consulting for the federal government.

If you do manage to make it outside the Beltway, and breathe air untainted by the political obsessions of all those inside it, you may well be heading to a magical place Washingtonians have come to refer to as Delmarva. Shorthand for Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, this portmanteau word means the long, narrow peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, which is occupied by those three different states – and where Washingtonians love to go to escape the summer humidity.

Whether you’re heading inside or outside of the Beltway, though, the heavy rush hour traffic makes life tough for D.C’s drivers… To improve their lot, the city’s come up with something called a slug line. When I first moved here and saw several signs designating ‘slug pick up’, I had visions of neon-jacketed city workers carefully scooping up gastropods into buckets – but it turns out this is all to do with Washington’s car pooling system. There are special lanes for drivers who have over a certain number of passengers – they are HOVs, or High Occupancy Vehicles – but any driver who doesn’t qualify as a HOV can go to a slug line, where passengers (‘slugs’) without cars can wait, in hope of catching a ride. As a journalist, for me as for the OED, a slug line has always meant the shorthand title one gives a story in the newsroom to avoid confusing it with others..

Whether you’re a humble staffer or POTUS himself, whether you’re munching on a half smoke at the ballpark or marking up a bill before a roll call vote, whether you’re filibustering in the Senate or lobbying on K Street, driving on the Beltway or being a slug, you’ll find Washington’s serious yet imaginative slang insidiously becoming a part of your everyday vocabulary.