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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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 9th 2012, 3:53 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
I googled Sam Peckinpah's 'Straw dogs', but could not find a specific explanation of the title. It sounds obvious for 'low life'. Can you elaborate or correct?
Thursday February 9th 2012, 9:33 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Cachelot: As it happens, I wrote about the origin of straw dogs on Language Log a few years back...
Peckinpah borrowed his cryptic title from a passage in Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching:
Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs;
the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.

D.C. Lau's translation of Tao Te Ching (Penguin Classics edition) explains in a footnote that "straw dogs were treated with the greatest deference before they were used as an offering, only to be discarded and trampled upon as soon as they had served their purpose."

(As I explain in the Language Log post, straw dog now sometimes gets used as a malapropism for straw man.)
Friday February 10th 2012, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
There's also a "house of straw," as in the Three Little Pigs, I suppose.
Friday February 10th 2012, 6:19 PM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
I came across this interview with Rod Lurie, who is remaking 'Straw Dogs':

RL: Straw dogs in ancient Chinese rituals were gods made out of straw, and after the ceremony was done, they were torn apart and thrown away and had no meaning. So a lot of this movie is about people who have gone through their lives having moments of grandiosity, maybe by being a football star, and when it’s all over, they go into a life where they are thrown away. They’re not considered very important any more.
Sunday February 12th 2012, 12:45 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I never new all these phrases and idioms.
Thanks for the presentation.
However, I do not see any match between "Straw Man" and "Straw Dogs" in the follow-up conversation. My sense always reminds me that human being's intelligence is far superior and is not comparable to any other animals in this world.

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