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The Political Wordscape

Continuing our political theme this week, columnist Nancy Friedman takes a look at the buzzwords of the current campaign season. Her background in developing names and brands gives her a unique perspective into how new political coinages bubble to the surface.

No matter what your perspective on the current presidential campaign (maybe you just want it to be over already!), you've probably noticed some new words and phrases emerging from this very interesting political season. Senator Barack Obama alone has been responsible for a slew of coinages, thanks largely to his easily combinable first and last names: visit Slate's Encyclopedia Baracktannica to play with an automatic generator of "Obamified" words such as Obamanation (the states whose primary elections Obama has won) and Baracklamation (anything that Obama says).

As a name developer, I'm naturally fascinated by the process of new-word creation. Here are some of the political neologisms I've been tracking this year:

Bittergate: In the beginning—1972, to be precise—there was Watergate, the Washington, D.C., hotel that lent its name to the scandal surrounding President Richard Nixon's doomed re-election campaign. In the decades since then, the -gate construction has become the code for any scandal. (From the Clinton presidency: Monicagate and Whitewatergate. From the UK: Cheriegate and Squidgygate. From sports: Gategate and Skategate. See even more in this Wikipedia article.) A new -gate was coined in April 2008, after Sen. Obama gave a speech to a private fundraiser in which he commented that small-town residents "get bitter" because of years of job losses and government letdowns. It's a long way, logically, from Constitutional crimes to ill-advised word choice, but such is the staying power of -gate that it's become the all-purpose marker for any headline-making ruckus.

Day One: Hillary Clinton has repeatedly used the phrase "ready from Day One" in reference to her experience and leadership ability. According to New York Times language columnist William Safire, the term may have first appeared in print in 1968; it probably acquired its slightly ominous overtones with the release of Day One, a 1989 docudrama about the birth of the atomic bomb. Semantically, "Day One" bears a resemblance to "Ground Zero": in both phrases, the modifier follows the noun, instead of the more natural (in English) opposite. Switching the word order in that way focuses attention on the modifier and lends a sense of urgency and drama to the phrase.

Dunkin' Donuts Democrats: Brands are big in this election year: voters are what they eat, drink, and buy. Early in 2008, "Dunkin' Donuts Democrats" began appearing as a descriptor of Sen. Hillary Clinton's supporters, who, according to one British newspaper editor, represented the "75-cent coffee and doughnut crowd" with "no money to waste" on fancy caffeinated beverages, unlike Obama's "latte liberals," who favored the "elite" Starbucks. (Sen. Clinton had made a photo-op out of mingling with the regular folks at a Dunkin' Donuts after the Massachusetts primary.) In fact, Dunkin' Donuts is no mom-and-pop corner store: the company was bought in 2006 for $2.4 billion by The Carlyle Group, the multinational private equity firm. Dunkin' Donuts now has about 1,900 stores in 30 countries. It sells a Mochi Ring, made with rice flour, in its Asian outlets.

Republicans have their brand associations, too. While he was still in the race, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said he wanted to be the choice of "Wal-Mart Republicans" rather than "Wall Street Republicans." The feeling was apparently mutual: Wal-Mart donated $10,000 to the Arkansas Republican Party.

-mentum: It's just a suffix, not a whole word, but -mentum definitely has momentum. The most prominent example has been O-mentum, short for "Obama momentum," but language reporter Mark Peters, writing in the Boston Globe, also found citations for Obamamentum, Mo-bama-mentum, and Obama-rama-mentum. For a while, when Mike Huckabee seemed to be a viable challenger to John McCain, we also had McMentum (or MacMentum) vs. Huckmentum. Then there's mutnemom—momentum spelled backward—to signify "reverse momentum," which Slate blogger Mickey Kaus coined to describe Hillary Clinton's sudden (albeit temporary, as it turned out) deceleration.

Monumentous: This portmanteau word, a blend of monumental and momentous, surfaced in late 2006 as a descriptor of "the Obama phenomenon" (sometimes called the Obamanon, another portmanteau). A commenter on the blog From the Left wrote in December 2006, "The next election may be the most monumentous since the elections at the end of the Civil War and end of the Great Depression." But the word, which may be based on a mis-hearing or a misunderstanding, actually antedates Obama's candidacy. It appeared in February 2004 in "Monumentous task of making a list of all DDoS Zombies," a post on a computer-programming bulletin board.

Shoulder-pad feminists: "Some women in their 30s, 40s and early-50s who favor Barack Obama have a phrase to describe what they don't like about Hillary Clinton: Shoulder-pad feminism." So wrote Maureen Dowd in March 5 New York Times op-ed column that went on to define the phrase as symbolizing the "men-are-pigs, woe-is-me, sisters-must-stick-together, pantsuits-are-powerful era that Hillary's campaign has lately revived with a vengeance." The phrase—and the rest of Dowd's column about racism and sexism—struck a tender nerve among many readers. Shoulder pads make an interesting metaphor: out of fashion in women's clothing for more than a decade, they suggest both historic achievement and sartorial not-with-it-ness. The image of broadened shoulders also evokes football-like aggression and unwelcome pushiness. Feminist has also become a highly charged word: for many young women, it seems to carry no positive implications at all (such as equal pay for equal work), but only stridency, man-hating, and—those shoulder pads again—bad fashion choices.

Under the bus: To "throw someone under the bus" is to throw him or her to the wolves, to scapegoat him or her, or to make him or her take the blame for something. The metaphor gained currency during the storm over Obama's outspoken former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Some critics wanted Obama to "throw Wright under the bus," while others admired Obama's loyalty. According to linguist Geoff Nunberg, who teaches at UC Berkeley and is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, the phrase has been traced back as far as the 1980s; it may have its origins in a standard announcement in minor-league baseball: "Bus leaving. Be on it or under it." The "bus" metaphor seems old-fashioned in an era of campaigning by private jet, but "toss him out of the plane" probably sounds too harsh. Interestingly, the blogger who reported on Obama's "bitter" comment that led to Bittergate writes for a Huffington Post blog called Off The Bus. That title is most likely a reference to Timothy Krause's 1973 book, The Boys on the Bus, about the 1972 presidential election. The "boys" were members of the campaign press corps.

Is there a bit of campaign lingo that you especially love (or loathe)? Leave a comment and tell us why.


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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:

Sunday June 1st 2008, 10:17 PM
Comment by: Cynthia Y.
Can we not think of any other names for political scandals besides adding the suffix beside -gate to every word? The scandals prior to Watergate all had very interesting names: Tamany Hall, Credit Mobilier, etc. Watergate was at least a real place where the actual incident took place. Except for Iran-Contra, which somehow escaped the -gate curse (I think), everything since then seems to be named something-gate. Let's shut the gate on -gate as there are certain to be more scandals in our political future.

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