Are you baffled by the perplexing terminology favored by American politicians and pundits? A new book by Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark is here to help. Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech is an informative and humorous guide to deciphering contemporary political lingo. Here we present an excerpt from the book's introduction.
No matter what your political beliefs, you probably long ago reached one conclusion about our nation's public servants: They can be confusing as hell.
They've acquired that reputation in part because Washington, D.C., has become spectacularly, even proudly, indecipherable to most outsiders. It has its own political culture, including a specific language. It is a lexicon, a jargon — a code, if you will — that can be alien to those not in the know. (By our estimate, and from our experience, it takes roughly a year of working there to start to get in the know.) Insider-y sounding political jargon often makes it into the news media, but seldom with any explanation or in any meaningful context. This helps sow confusion, which in turn is one of the factors that have fueled the searing and seemingly unending contempt for all things Beltway.
But such talk is absolutely not limited to Washington. Like everything else, it's just more magnified there. Many of the same expressions can be heard at local city council and county commission meetings, as well as statehouses — any place, in other words, where it's important to know the lingo to fit in. And those places can spawn their own unique expressions. A few examples:
At the Idaho capitol in Boise, the phrase "radiator-capping" has been in vogue. It describes the process of totally rewriting a bill on the floor of the legislature in much the same fashion as one would overhaul an old car, leaving intact just one original part — the radiator cap.
In the Dakotas, a bill that has been completely changed in a similar fashion is described as "hog housed." According to the public radio show A Way with Words, the phrase derives from a century-old bill that was altered at the last moment to obtain money for a hog barn.
- Among Massachusetts political insiders, the verb "spot" is popular. As the Boston Globe's Jim O'Sullivan explains: "If a candidate 'spots' his opponent, he has wedged him into an uncomfortable political position. If a president uses the bully pulpit to 'spot' Congress, he is portraying it in a negative light unless it votes for his bill. 'We got spotted by the guy,' one Massachusetts lawmaker told me after the governor had used his State of the Commonwealth address to champion his municipal financing package."
Complaints about the murkiness of political language aren't new. "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible," fulminated George Orwell in a famous 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language." He inveighed against what he saw as their "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" and concluded: "Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." We would argue, however, that the problem has only gotten worse since Orwell wrote this. It's one of the by-products of a polarized political age.
Political slang — like all other forms of jargon — helps its practitioners to develop and maintain a sense of shared identity. British linguist Julie Coleman observed in her 2012 book The Life of Slang that such subcultures of language "create in-groups and out-groups and act as an emblem of belonging." And in a town as status conscious as Washington, where it's been often observed that the hunger for power far trumps that for money, belonging to something — such as the Democratic or Republican parties — is a big deal.
This book represents an attempt to defang the slang and crack the code. In writing this, we tried to think back to when we were new to Washington and wishing, like wandering tourists lost in a foreign city, that we had a handy all-in-one-place phrasebook. Some of these are obscure words and phrases; others are broader concepts that we felt we could further explain. We settled on six areas — personalities, expressions, legislation, campaigns/elections, people/places/things, and media/scandals. These divisions, unlike those in Congress, are not intractable. A number of terms could fit in a different chapter than the one they're in.
We are by no means the first to undertake such a feat — the late New York Times columnist William Safire's Political Dictionary is the best-known example of a translation of the lexicon, and blogs such as Taegan Goddard's Political Wire have compiled impressive lists of definitions. At the same time, the last few years have seen significant peel-back-the-curtain political works such as Mark Leibovich's This Town and John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's two Game Change books. And others have delved into public attitudes toward political language; University of California–Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, in his 2006 book Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times– Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, noted the paradoxical nature of such language: "Each of us believes that we're inured to manipulation, but that everyone else in the room is susceptible to it."
Other nonpolitically specific linguistic and etymological websites also have made substantive contributions. They include the Free Dictionary and the Global Language Monitor, which has compiled an annual list of political buzzword rankings based on the frequency with which they're used in print, on air, and on-line. It has noted the disconnection between the phrases that campaigns stress, and their actual importance. In mid-2012, for example, the phrase "Mitt Romney's wealth" was a focus of repeated Democratic attacks, but it ranked dead last in the Monitor's survey. (The winning phrase was "the current U.S. economy," and President Barack Obama's ownership of it.) There's also Wikipedia, but it has its faults. It once incorrectly asserted that former Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago's mayor, was in a one-man Klezmer band. When our friend Steve Terrell asked Emanuel about this, "He looked at me like I was crazy."
We hope that this book will be an even more detailed guide to our current political landscape. You won't see, as in other books, explanations for "mugwumps" (a term from the 1880s to characterize Republican activists who bolted from their party) or "boll weevils" (a 1980s-era description of conservative southern Democrats) or "hanging chads" (the main buzzword, along with "lock-box," to emerge from the tumultuous 2000 presidential election). We've also tried to eschew issue-specific words and phrases, such as "amnesty" on immigration or "death panels" on health care. Nor will we revisit political words and phrases that are so popular that they've become part of everyday language, like "spin," "leak" and "wonk." When we do bring up words and concepts that are in common use, we try to provide some context. And we hope to enlighten about some little-noticed phrases and euphemisms, such as "disingenuous" and "We need to have a conversation about..."
We have no political agenda. There is certainly merit in arguing that certain kinds of language are inappropriately political, but our purpose — for better or worse — is merely to highlight examples in widespread use. We've concentrated on terms and expressions employed by both Democrats and Republicans, though we do indicate where we make exceptions. Much of our book is focused on Congress, as it's the place where both of us have the most experience — and which, given its moribund public approval ratings, we would argue is the place that is by far the ripest for decoding.
In recent years there's been an increasing realization that all of government needs to be far better explained — witness the emergences of fact-checking sites like the Tampa Bay Times' Pulitzer Prize–winning PolitiFact, the popularity of blogs that delve far more deeply into the details of politics than most conventional media, and by-now common observations in media about how the infusion of massive sums of money has irrevocably changed the mechanics of legislating. We'd also like to think that the flood of politics-related TV shows and movies — Scandal, Veep, Alpha House, House of Cards, and so on — indicates at least a partial desire among the public to understand what really goes on at the White House, on Capitol Hill, and elsewhere.
We hope — and this hope may be "quixotic," to use a political-journalism cliché we explore — that this book can augment those much-needed services for those of you who are sincerely confused and who aren't obsessive readers of Politico or Real Clear Politics. As for those who are, we would emphasize that our list of terms and expressions is by no means comprehensive. We fully envision it mutating over time, and perhaps one day being able to add to it. And so we fully welcome other suggestions. Visit our website, www.dogwhistlebook.com.
From Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech, by Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark. Published by University Press of New England © 2014. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.