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Houses of Straw: Flimsy Votes and Arguments

We'd like to welcome Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review, as our newest regular contributor! In this column, she's grabbing at "straws": straw polls, straw men, and straw bashers.

Though we're thick in the primary and caucus season, the testing of the political winds actually began months ago, with several "straw polls." Thought to come from the farm practice of tossing a few shreds of straw into the air to test which way the wind was blowing to determine if it would be good weather for whatever chores needed to be done that day, a "straw poll" or "straw vote" is a way for candidates to see early on if the wind is blowing in their favor. A "straw poll" is not binding on anyone. As O. Henry wrote in A Ruler of Men in 1906: "‘A straw vote,' says I, ‘only shows which way the hot air blows.'"

Sometimes, a candidate will set up a "straw man" — or, to be politically correct, a "straw woman" or "straw person." By its nature, a "straw man" is flimsy. But "straw man" has several shades of meaning: Someone can set up a "straw man" argument to appear to defeat it and thus gain stature, as in a politician who sets up unemployment as a "problem" and then shows how he created thousands of jobs, thus proving that unemployment is not really a "problem." Others will use "straw man" to mean a flimsy argument, as in this from one media outlet: "Republicans' favorite straw man is to talk about uncertainty as a threat to growth." And others have used "straw man" to refer to a person, as Chris Matthews did discussing Mitt Romney's defense of his wealth: "Who is he arguing with? I would argue he is arguing with a straw man. He has made up this fictitious character who doesn't like he's made a lot of money."

On occasion, a "straw man" can also be a "red herring." That expression, which probably comes from the practice of using smoked herring to lay a trail for hounds to follow, means a diversion. Someone who sets up a flimsy argument as a diversion is killing two idioms with one blow.

A "straw man" might also be a "straw boss." Originally, the "straw boss" had the secondary job; the real boss was in charge of the grain. But over the years, "straw boss" has also come to mean a front or cover for the real boss.

"Straw" figures in many other expressions, of course, among them "the short straw," "the last straw," "the straw that broke the camel's back." There's also a "straw shoe," said to come from the practice of people standing outside a courthouse with straw in their shoes, indicating their willingness to commit perjury for money.

And come convention time there will be a lot of "straw bashers." No, not the politicians: "Straw basher" is slang for the flat-brimmed straw hat that seems to show up only during presidential conventions. (They're also called "straw boaters.") Of course, they're no longer made of straw; they only look like they are. Does that make them "straw man hats"?

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.