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Words at Play

The Top 8 Political Buzzwords of 2016

The history behind 8 words ripped from the headlines

Definition: a group of social, economic, and political leaders who form a ruling class (as of a nation); a controlling group

When did we begin to shake our fists in impotent rage, while decrying “the establishment”? It’s a bit hard to say, since establishment has had a fair number of meanings over the centuries, some of which bleed into each other, but lexicographers have traced the use of “the Establishment” as a social group to at least the early 1920s. In politics we have been referring to “establishment candidates” for over 50 years; an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 1964 contains the line “Even the masses, he said, are content to give their votes to “establishment” candidates in exchange for small material concessions.”

Even so, McConnell was met with scattered boos from the convention floor, another sign that this gathering is in the hands of Trump and not the party establishment.
—Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 19 July 2016

Definition: a great majority of votes for one side; especially :  a one-sided election

Landslide entered our language as one of those words with a pleasingly self-explanatory meaning; the first sense in which it was used was in reference to a mass of something (such as rock, earth, or landfill) that slid. The word began to take on its political sense in the 19th century; The Indiana Springfield Republican wrote of Ulysses Grant’s election in 1874 that “this particular landslide promises at this writing to turn out one of the biggest on record.”

Republican candidates up and down the ballot therefore become unwilling sharers of a high-risk Trump electoral wager, a gamble more likely to end in a Hillary landslide than a Trump White House.
—Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., The Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2016

Definition: the use of extreme dilatory tactics (as speaking merely to consume time) by an individual or group in an attempt to delay or prevent action by the majority in a legislative or deliberative assembly

The filibuster has a certain charm in its etymology; the word comes to English from the Spanish filibustero, which means, literally, “freebooter” (a freebooter is a kind of a pirate or plunderer). The route from piracy to delaying tactics in a legislative body is a logical one, after a fashion, albeit one that is spread out over several hundred years. The word was first used near the end of the 16th century, in direct reference to pirates; by the end of the 18th century it was being applied specifically to those who robbed the Spanish colonies in the West Indies. In the middle of the 19th century filibuster came to be used in reference to Americans who took part in fomenting insurrections in Central and South America, and shortly after spread its meaning to a general person who engaged in irregular tactics in warfare. By the end of the 19th century filibuster had broadened still further, and was used to describe the irregular and delaying tactics of obstructing progress in a legislative body.  

To get what they wanted, the senators held the floor for almost 15 hours by staging with textbook precision an old-fashioned “talking filibuster” to prevent any other business by the Senate.
—David Hawkings, RollCall.com, 23 June 2016

Definition: a social system in which a government is responsible for the economic and social welfare of its citizens and has policies to provide free health care, money for people without jobs, etc.

Although the term for it has been in use since the 19th century, it was not until several decades into the 20th that the modern concept of the welfare state came about. This is the governmental enactment of various forms of social insurance, such as unemployment and disability insurance, that are designed to safeguard the economic and social welfare of a population. In the United States the beginnings of the welfare state are commonly associated with the New Deal of the 1930s.

But the core of his message was protectionist and nativist, comfortable with an expansive welfare state, bored with religious conservatism, and dismissive of the commitments that constitute the post-Cold War Pax Americana.
—Ross Douthat, The New York Times, 7 May, 2016

Definition: love for or devotion to one's country

Patriotism can be traced back to the Greek word for father, patēr, a root that it shares with such other words as expatriate and patriarchy. Patriotism and nationalism both began to be used in the 18th century, and for some decades appeared to have had a very similar meaning; in recent years, however, nationalism has come to take on a slightly changed meaning, one that carries with it a sense of excessive devotion to the interests of one’s country.

Joseph Stalin said if you want to bring America down you, have to undermine three things: our spiritual life, our patriotism and our morality.
—Ben Carson, quoted in The New York Times, 14 February 2016


Though Melania Trump was accused of plagiarizing Michelle Obama's 2008 speech, the campaign released a statement in which a speechwriter, Meredith McIver, took the blame.

Definition: a person whose job is to write speeches that are given by someone else

The speechwriter is now viewed as an integral part of any political campaign, but in the not-so-distant past most, if not all, candidates for higher office wrote their own speeches. The magnificently named Judson T. Welliver is widely credited (although some give the honor to Alexander Hamilton) with being the first speechwriter for a United States president, as he performed this function for President Harding. There were certainly speechwriters prior to Welliver, as we see evidence of the term in use from the early 19th century, but it was not nearly so widespread as today.

On ABC’s Good Morning America on Wednesday, Donald Trump’s son said that “zero” speechwriters helped him compile his speech. “I wrote every single word of my speech myself,” the executive president at the Trump Organization said.
—Eliza Collins, USA Today, 20 July, 2016

Definition: manipulated or controlled, usually by deceptive or dishonest means

In the 2016 presidential contest adherents to both of the major political parties leveled accusations that the system by which candidates are chosen was rigged. Rig is a word with a great many meanings in English, many of which have to do with outfitting something (such as a ship) with necessary gear. Rigged used in reference to something that is fraudulent, however, comes from a different source; rig also has been used as a dialectical British word for playing a trick on someone. From this sense the word began to be used, in the early 19th century, to describe business dealings that were shady or underhanded. Since the propensity for chicanery is just as strong in politicians as it is in members of the business class, the word soon began to be used to describe elections which were less than fair.

Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders ticked off reasons why he believes the U.S. economy is "rigged" at the Washington Avenue Armory and sharply criticized his rival in the primary, Hillary Clinton.
—timesunion.com (Albany Times Union), 13 April 2016

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Definition: the organized activity of raising funds (as for an institution or political cause)

Until recently it has been thought that the word fund-raising (or fundraising) was a recent coinage, with little evidence of its use before 1940. Was this perhaps due to politics being somehow more refined and innocent in the years prior to that decade? No. First of all, politics, it is safe to say, has always been a morally ambiguous field. And recent searches have found that fund-raising has been in use for far longer than previously thought. A curious magazine printed in 1750 bore the title A Fund Raising for the Italian Gentleman: or, a Magazine filling on the Scheme of Frugality, although it is not clear that the author intended these words to be interpreted in the sense of “an organized effort to raise money for some cause.” Yet whether or not this was the case, fund-raising is in consistent use throughout the 19th century (often, it should be said, in reference to some noble goal). By the very beginning of the 20th century, we can see that fund-raising and politics were already linked, and not necessarily in a good way; an article in an Indiana newspaper, The Evening Herald, from 1905, bears the header “Cockran wants political fund raising done out in the daylight.”

Bernie Sanders just broke his monthly fundraising record, raking in more than $44 million in donations in March.
—Tessa Berenson, Time (time.com), April 2016

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