12 overused political terms
With the 2016 Presidential primaries kicking into high gear, the US should prepare itself for a deluge of slangy political terms. From older, tired terms to new, shinier ones, here are several words and phrases that will undoubtedly grate on the ears of those following the scramble towards party nominations.
1. flip flopper
Although US politicians have been executing flip-flops since the late 19th century (U-turn is used in the UK), it sometimes feels as though use of the term went into overdrive following the 2004 US Presidential elections, in which John Kerry was often criticized as a flip-flopper on issues. At this point, it can even feel as though politics has sucked the joy out of the silly-sounding footwear.
2. grass roots
Although the term ‘grass roots’ has been used for more than a century to refer generally to the ‘fundamental level’ of something, it has taken on a different and more urgent sense partly thanks to the 2008 presidential election, which highlighted how crucial the grass roots, or ‘the ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organization’s membership’, can be to a campaign.
Riding on the coattails of grassroots is the word astroturf, a clever play on the trademarked fake grass product, with reference to politicians and organizations who ‘fake’ having a strong grass roots base.
3. inside baseball
American English is littered with baseball idioms, so it should probably come as no surprise that this one has jumped into the world of political journalism. Referring to ‘esoteric or highly technical information’, particularly in political journalism, you might wonder what exactly is so ‘inside’ about it. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helpfully explains that inside baseball refers to a game strategy in baseball where a team ‘methodically focuses on teamwork and tactical play, in contrast to seeking striking plays or relying on star players’. This sense is now considered historical, and is rarely heard actually referring to the game of baseball today. See our post on other baseball idioms in English.
4. red state / blue state
Believe it or not, the colorful red and blue schema – red for the Republican Party, blue for the Democratic Party – that now dominates US political discourse is a pretty recent invention. Prior to the 2000 US Presidential election, media coverage had alternated the attribution of those colors, but after that election, the coloring of states by political association was more or less set. Do we even need to talk about the unfortunate term purple state?
5. hot button issue
Referring to a ‘strongly emotive, popular, or controversial concern or issue’, the term ‘hot button’ is one that politicians and pundits are always, well, pressing into use. Plus, isn’t every issue a hot button issue for someone somewhere out there? On the other hand the term third rail – thanks to its metaphorical richness – gets a pass.
It’s a shame that such a fun-sounding word has assumed such a staid political position, especially when the word policy is tacked onto it. In the political world, wonk refers to ‘a person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of political policy’.
Despite its fun etymology (it comes from pirates!), the word filibuster has been ruined for most thanks to constant exposure. That said, there’s nothing like enlivening a non-riveting CSPAN broadcast like reimagining the scene as one in the style of Pirates of the Caribbean.
While part of me also loves appending -gate to any and all scandals, seeing the combining form shoved seriously onto every minor mishap is getting old. The combining form -gate comes from the infamous Watergate scandal of 1972, in which an attempt to bug the national headquarters of the Democratic Party (in the Watergate building in Washington, DC) led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The use of -gate has since extended past the world of politics now into sports and popular culture, from Donutgate to Deflategate, the latter of which at least had the excellent sense to rhyme. At one point, some speculated that the combining form -boat showed some promise, but it seems that -gate continues to rule the world of scandal.
9. stump speech
While there’s no doubt some folksy charm built into this term, it might be a nice idea to unroot the hold that the verbal version ‘stump’ has on the US political elite. Plus, the image of candidates ‘stumping’ around does them all very little credit. The term ‘stump speech’ comes from the fact that stumps would have sometimes been used as speaking platforms for political candidates.
10. on message
We know politics, as viewed through the media, is typically a highly-scripted affair, and that candidates, pundits, and politicians are all careful to heed their ‘brand image’. Need we be reminded of this even further with the constant use of ‘on message’?
11. town hall meeting
Even if it’s not actually in a town hall? ‘Town hall meeting’ has exactly the same connect-with-the-average-voters feel as ‘soccer mom’ and ‘Joe Sixpack’. This meeting refers to event at which a politician answers questions on political issues from members of the public.
12. dark horse
Like baseball, horse racing has a knack for dropping in phrases and idioms throughout all corners of American English. Dark horse refers to a ‘candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds’. Check out our post covering other horse idioms and phrases.
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