Word Routes

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Mailbag Friday: "Landslide"

Jon D. of King of Prussia, Pa. writes in with a Mailbag Friday question: " There has been a lot of talk about a landslide victory during this recent presidential election.  Not being sure if we actually experienced one or not, I was wondering if you could educate us on what the term actually means and its historical context in describing elections."

Political pundits will be arguing for a while about whether Barack Obama's win over John McCain was indeed a landslide, since there's no precise way of measuring one in political terms. The Visual Thesaurus wordmap for landslide gives the relevant meaning as "an overwhelming electoral victory," but how overwhelming is overwhelming? Obama's six-point margin in the popular vote is decisive but not quite landslide-y. His 2-to-1 advantage in the Electoral College is more impressive, though not as overpowering as such modern presidential romps as Roosevelt/Landon in 1936, Nixon/McGovern in 1972, or Reagan/Mondale in 1984. (Even George H.W. Bush received more electoral votes against Michael Dukakis in 1988.)

The slipperiness of the landslide concept is fitting given its metaphorical extension from "a slide of a large mass of dirt and rock down a mountain or cliff." It emerged in the early nineteenth century as an American version of the older British term landslip. (Slip and slide join many other words beginning with /sl-/ for slithery movement and slimy stuff.) In the antebellum years of the 1840s and 1850s, local American newspapers reported many landslides that imperiled roadways and, increasingly, railways. Travelers were warned to be on the lookout for these treacherous, even lethal, geological movements.

When landslide made the crossover into politics, it was couched in these traveler's warnings. In August 1856, the New York Evening Post reported on campaigning in Ohio for John Fremont, the first Republican presidential candidate, with much support coming from freedmen, or former slaves. "If this is an index of what is going on in Ohio," the Post wrote, "look out for a land-slide here on the 4th of November, for we are all going one way." Fremont did carry Ohio along with many other Northern states, but he lost the overall vote to the Democrat James Buchanan.

The unusual presidential campaign of 1872 saw landslide used in advance of the showdown between incumbent Republican president Ulysses S. Grant and his challenger, newspaper editor Horace Greeley. Greeley was originally nominated by the Liberal Republican Party, an anti-Grant offshoot of the Republicans that organized at a May 1872 convention in Cincinnati. The following month, the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune gleefully reported on the disarray in the Democratic Party, which was considering nominating Greeley at their own convention in Baltimore. The headline read, "A Pending Political Revolution: Baltimore Will Indorse Cincinnati -- Then Look Out For Landslides!" The Tribune writer guessed (correctly) that Greeley would be the Democrats' nominee and then confidently predicted, "look out after that for one of the greatest political landslides that ever occurred in any country." Some in the Greeley camp threw around the L-word too: the secretary of the Greeley Club in Grundy County, Illinois told the Tribune: "Look out for a big landslide in Grundy. Greeley and Reform are the Watchword, and Victory the prize." But in the end it was Grant who got the landslide victory with 286 electoral votes to Greeley's 66, though the hapless Greeley died before his electors could cast their votes.

Even in 1900, there were still echoes of the old traveler's warning. A couple of days before the presidential election, on November 4, a headline in the Los Angeles Times read: "Look out for a big landslide; indications are that Republicans will sweep the country." (President McKinley and the Republicans did well that year thanks to public support for the Spanish-American War, but it wasn't quite a blowout.) Over the course of the twentieth century, landslide became more of a political cliche, to the point that it even worked its way into slogans. In 1936, Alfred Landon had the punny slogans "Land Landon with a Landslide" and "Let's Make It a Landon-Slide." (Despite a notoriously inaccurate poll predicting a Landon victory, it was FDR who won with a huge landslide that year.) Lyndon Johnson earned the ironic nickname "Landslide Lyndon" after narrowly winning his 1948 U.S. Senate election, but in 1964 the nickname became a serious one after he trounced Barry Goldwater in the presidential race.

In his Political Dictionary, William Safire observes that landslide is one of many terms for natural disasters that have come to describe popular political movements: there's also groundswell, avalanche, prairie fire, firestorm, tidal wave, and most recently tsunami. The language of catastrophe, it seems, is particularly suited to the seismic shifts of electoral politics.

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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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Friday November 7th 2008, 9:41 AM
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