Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Not So "Razor-Tight"

In the leadup to President Obama's win over Mitt Romney, a number of political commentators described the presidential race as not just "tight" but "razor-tight." Ultimately, the razor-tight description was apt in such battleground states as Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, but not so much in the overall electoral results. But wait a minute: why razor-tight?

On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Gerald Cohen noticed razor-tight being used by David Gregory on "Meet the Press" to describe the polling in Ohio. But Gregory wasn't the only television commentator to latch on to the term: take a look at the numerous recent results on Internet Archive's TV News video database. On "The Colbert Report" on Monday night, Stephen Colbert had some fun with the political expression of the moment:

"That means there's no room for error, or correct use of metaphor," Colbert says mockingly. So is razor-tight a mangled metaphor, or perhaps an idiom blend? On the ADS list, Gerald Cohen called it "a blend in regard to the margin: 'extremely tight' + 'razor thin'." But on his blog, Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky gave a different assessment:

...rather than a blend of two specific expressions conveying 'very close' (which could then be seen as competing with one another), what we have is an extension of the metaphoric modifier razor in razor thin for use with an adjective head other than thin, conveying both a reference to some relevant property of razors and also an extreme positive position on the corresponding scale for the adjective.

In other words, the razor of razor-thin can be applied to other adjectives, including razor-close and razor-tight, to suggest something to do with razors, such as the closeness of a shave you can get from a straight razor. And while razor-tight is now popular in describing close political races, I've found examples in sports reporting going all the way back to the 1950s. The earliest citation I've turned up appears in the Indiana (Penn.) Evening Gazette from Feb. 5, 1955, in an article about a local wrestling match: "Latrobe wrestlers put an end to Indiana's High all-winning ways with a razor tight 20-19 decision here last night."

Razor-tight isn't the only unusual idiom used by political pundits for races that are considered "too close to call." In the run-up to the 2008 primaries, tight as a tick attracted notice, as I discussed in a Language Log post at the time. It's often associated with erstwhile CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who is known for his colorful Texanisms. Ratheresque elaborations include "tight as a tick in Grandma's corset" and "tight as a tick on a deer." Interestingly, in both razor-tight and tight as a tick, the metaphorical images apparently have to do with closeness to the skin, whether it's a razor shaving skin or a tick attaching itself to skin. These political figures of speech, it seems, are only skin-deep.

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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.