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Campaign Lingo 2012

The U.S. presidential election is six months away, but the Republican debates and primary contests have already gone on for more than a year. The long campaign has meant plenty of exposure to that special genre of language known as political speech.

I've been compiling the campaign buzzwords and catchphrases that have caught my attention — and maybe yours as well. I'll look at them in alphabetical order: six of them today and another six in a future post.

Brokered convention. As recently as March, former Senator Rick Santorum was still hoping to prevent former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney from securing the Republican candidacy. The close race, in which it seemed possible that neither front-runner would win enough delegates in primary elections to secure the nomination, gave rise to talk about a "brokered" party convention in August. At a brokered convention, the nominee is chosen through re-votes and what's often called political horse-trading — "hard political bargaining to a conclusion of a deal," according to Safire's Political Dictionary. Once common in U.S. politics, brokered conventions are now rare: the last brokered Republican convention took place in 1948, and the last Democratic convention to be brokered was in 1952.

Cliffhanger. Earlier this year, several important state primary contests, notably the ones in Michigan and Ohio, were so close that reporters called them cliffhangers. The word comes from the early years of moviemaking, where it referred to a serial film in which each episode ends in suspense, often with the hero or heroine literally dangling from a cliff. The OED's earliest citation for cliffhanger is a 1937 issue of the American Speech journal.

Etch A Sketch. On March 21, Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told a CNN interviewer: "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." The comment spread quickly to mainstream media outlets ("In one short sentence, Fehrnstrom defined his boss as not only a blank slate but a toy."–Time) and on blogs and Twitter; the following day, rival candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were photographed playing with Etch A Sketch toys. The combination of a vivid image — an easily erasable drawing — and a catchy rhyming name combined to create an instant meme. Etch A Sketch is the trademark for a mechanical drawing toy first sold in 1960; its manufacturer, Ohio Art Company, quickly capitalized on the attention by producing a series of playful yet politically neutral ads about the election. Sales of Etch A Sketch zoomed, as did Ohio Art Company's stock price. (I wrote about the Etch A Sketch brand for the Visual Thesaurus last June.)

Evolving. What "Etch A Sketch" signifies for Romney, evolving may be for President Obama, who has used the word several times in connection with the issue of same-sex marriage. To his critics, such as the right-leaning Fox News, the word is synonymous with "flip-flop." In a press conference in late 2010, Obama said his feelings about gay marriage "are constantly evolving." On May 9 of this year, the president announced the latest stage of his personal evolution, telling ABC News that "for me personally it's important to go ahead and affirm that same-sex couples should be able to get married." Some 53 percent of Americans agree with the president, according to recent polling. As for evolution in the Darwinian sense, a 2009 Gallup Poll found that only 40 percent of Americans accept the evidence for the scientific theory. Evolution came into English a couple of centuries before Charles Darwin wrote about it in 1874, in The Origin of Species. It was used in the early 17th century to describe a military maneuver, and it has meant "a process of gradual change" since 1771.

Forward. The Obama campaign's slogan — "Forward" — made its debut in late April. Pundits immediately parsed it as if it were the Rosetta Stone. Buzzfeed claimed the slogan was borrowed from the left-ish news channel MSNBC ("Lean Forward"); Slate saw a connection with a 2005 slogan used by Britain's Labour Party ("Forward, Not Back"). Other observers pointed to the centrist Israeli political party Kadimah (which means "forward" in Hebrew), to old Soviet slogans, and to the Jewish Daily Forward, which launched in New York in 1897 as a Yiddish-language newspaper and led many fights for social justice. The slogan also revived an old Democrats vs. Republicans joke: "If you want the car to go forward, put it in D; if you want to go backward, put it in R."

Grandiosity. In a January debate held in South Carolina, candidate Rick Santorum said of one of his opponents: "Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich. A month ago, he was saying, ‘Oh, I'm inevitable.' It was, ‘I'm destined to do it.'" Gingrich appeared to be flattered by the remark, but grandiosity is a double-edged sword. It can mean "greatness of scope or intent," but it more often means "feigned or affective grandeur or pomposity" or "excessive use of verbal ornamentation." The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls grandiosity "an unrealistic sense of superiority, a sustained view of oneself as better than others that causes the narcissist to view others with disdain or as inferior. It also refers to a sense of uniqueness, the belief that few others have anything in common with oneself and that one can only be understood by a few or very special people."

(Curious about the political buzzwords of the last presidential campaign, in 2008? Read my archived column.)


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 16th 2012, 2:01 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The Obama campaign seems to have learned from the 2008 election that being able to reduce the candidate to a single term -- in 2008, it was "Hope" -- obviates the need for a lot of rhetoric. It's a tactic worthy of GOP term-meister Frank Luntz. (Tho no one quite has his knack for the evocative, like "death tax.")

I have my fingers crossed that "Etch-a-Sketch" will make it to the finals of the Word of the Year polling. :-)
Wednesday May 16th 2012, 8:53 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Wonderful topic.
I read political comments and speeches regularly but I failed to notice these buzzwords and catchphrases presence. This column opened my eyes. Of course I will track "Etch-a Sketch"'s evolution. To win, another six months it has to be alive in the buzzwords competition.
I look forward to read Ms. Nancy's next collection of campaign phrases.
The word "evolution" is getting weight. Darwin used the word for life evolve in this world, president Obama used the word for his understanding regarding gay lifestyle and marriage in particular. The first one is for living body creation and the new one is for raising a living body.
Interesting point is: a human life is needed to raise a human child but not an animal offspring. Any animal's offspring is capable to survive naturally from it's birth second. This is the fundamental difference between animal and human being. Definition of marriage is going to change very soon I believe!
Wednesday May 16th 2012, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Jason H. (Mission Viejo, CA)
Another great article! I finally broke down and purchased a Visual Thesaurus subscription recently, and I must say, I'm enjoying the blog just as much as the thesaurus itself!
Sunday May 27th 2012, 3:13 PM
Comment by: B Fay W (Waupaca, WI)
"Do-over" has gotten a lot of press here in Wisconsin, in the recall election of Scott Walker as governor. Usually it's Pubs accusing Dems of this dastardly deed because the 2010 gubernatorial race was between these same two men, and of course, Walker won. In the debate on Friday, Tom Barrett turned it back on Walker quite effectively, stating we can't "do-over Scott Walker's decision to start a political civil war that tore apart this state," nor can we "do-over" several other Walker actions that led to the recall. Usually it's the Pubs that are in top command of the language, and Walker has managed quite a feat with that in labeling the Dems the party supported by special interests. I believe he is referring to "the Union vote." I have expected more of a push back from the Dems on that - referring to big business in general, some businesses in specific, some wealthy individuals, certain SuperPACs, and some appointments that Walker made, among other things. But they really haven't picked that ball up much lately. Or I should say, I haven't noticed that they have -- I switch channels when any political ads come on. Another verbal coup for the Pubs: Walker is touting the Dems as relying on "out-of-state money" when clearly, his campaign courted and collected far more "out-of-state money." But HEY, this is politics!

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