Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A New Political Eponym Barges in

This time last year, David Letterman was making jokes about Blagojeviching, playing on the name of disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Now we've got a brand-new political eponym on our hands: Salahi is being used as a verb meaning "to gate-crash an official event."

The new word of course refers to Virginia couple Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who showed up uninvited to President Obama's state dinner in honor of the Indian Prime Minister last month. The scandal over the event's lax security has been dubbed Crashergate or Gatecrashergate. Now Politico reports that Salahi is making the rounds as a playful verb, as in this line from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd: "The White House failure to stop the Salahis from Salahing their way past security checkpoints will leave people smirking for a while."

Blagojeviching didn't end up sticking around in the political lexicon, perhaps because it's just too hard to say. Salahi is a shorter name, but it might not lend itself well to verbifying either: is it Salahing, as Dowd has it, or Salahi-ing, as in Politico's quote from event planner Kelley McCormick, "Many of us have witnessed highly advanced Salahi-ing over the years"?

Either way, it's noticeable that Salahi is getting used as an active verb rather than a passive one. Political eponyms very often take the passive form of get X-ed, as in get Borked, meaning "to suffer a similar fate as that of Robert Bork," whose nomination to the Supreme Court was torpedoed in 1987. Other Supreme Court nominees have been eponymized since then, as in "Miered" (after George W. Bush's failed nominee Harriet Miers) and most recently, "Sotomayored" (after Obama's successful nominee Sonia Sotomayor).

Passive political eponyms of the Borked variety have also been used to refer to a political candidate getting targeted by outside groups. Thus when South Dakota Senator (and Senate Majority Leader) Tom Daschle went down to defeat to John Thune in 2004, pundits spoke of "getting Daschled." Similarly, when moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava faced opposition this past year from conservative candidate Doug Hoffman in an upstate New York congressional race, Democrats said that she "got Scozzafava-ed." (Like Blagojevich, Scozzafava might be a little too polysyllabic to have staying power as an eponym.)

The Salahis, by audaciously taking matters into their own hands at the state dinner, have asserted a more active role in their eponymization. "To Salahi one's way (into an event)" puts the neologism into the same category as such pushy verbs as bulldoze, strong-arm, and, of course, gate-crash (a back-formation from the noun gate-crasher).

Do you think the verb Salahi has legs, or is it yet another flash in the pan like so many fleeting eponyms before it? Have we already lost interest in Gatecrashergate, moving on to more salacious stories like the Tiger Woods saga? Sound off in the comments below — and let us know about any other eponyms you've heard this past year.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 15th 2009, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
It occurred to me that most eponyms come, stay for a while in the minds of people, and then are forgotten, because people themselves come and go (that is, are mortal) and the new generations invent their own eponyms, though Achilles’ heel is still used to this day (which certainly leads one to ask why some eponyms continue to be used for ages while others disappear).
I found an interesting site http://content.karger.com/produktedb/produkte.asp?typ=fulltext&file=ENE2005053004171
in which some neurological eponyms are discussed. They are mainly derived from Literature and Visual Arts (and I wonder why we do not have more of this type today, that is, eponyms derived from literature and arts).
Recently I found the Chinese Writing Stone (“This is a limestone matrix with andalusite crystals. It is also called Porphory. It received the name Chinese Writing Rock or Stone because of the crystalline structure resembling the Chinese characters of the written language.”) and Picasso Marble (which “is found in Utah, U.S. It is a relatively soft stone between 4-5 on the Mohs scale of hardness. Identifiable by its striking and dramatic combination of browns, blacks, grays and white colors, each piece is different. When cut en cabochon the stones often have a scenic appearance and look like forest trees or hill sides in winter.”) which perhaps are most likely to stay (unless new materials will be discovered and used in the future).
However, how often is Watteau Pleat ( “An arrangement of the back of a woman's dress in which broad folds or pleats hang from the neck to the bottom of the skirt without interruption. A Watteau bodice is a style of woman's dress having a square opening at the neck, and presenting some resemblance to the costumes in the paintings by the artist Watteau, at the beginning of the 18th century.”) used today, when women wear tee-shirts? And how often do we hear the term pickwickians used to refer to the obese (though we are told that obesity has reached epidemic proportions)?
Tuesday December 15th 2009, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Here's hoping that "salahi" is a short-lived, briefly amusing blip on the eponym radar. The sooner publicity hogs like this are forgotten, the better (and the faster their self-aggrandizing aspirations are dashed).
Tuesday December 15th 2009, 2:50 PM
Comment by: Michael C.
The only eponym I always remember is Macgyver, from the TV show of the same name.
Give me a second, I need to macgyver this bracelet.

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