Words at Play

7 Words from Political Scandals

From 'smoke-filled rooms' to tabloid headlines
5 Jan 2023


Definition - dishonest

Certain nouns take to certain adjectives readily, and, once connected, seem reluctant to let go. There are a handful of things which are considerably more likely to be modified with crooked in its literal sense; smiles, teeth, and streets often are paired with this word. In the sense we are concerned with, “dishonest,” there are specific occupations which are much more likely to be paired with crooked, and these are cop, lawyer, and politician.

The maxim that has been laid down by certain crooked politicians, to behave to a friend with the same guarded caution as we would do to an enemy, because it is possible that he may one day become such, discovers a mind which never was made for the enjoyments of friendship.
— Hugh Blair, Sermons, 1794


Definition - one that is stunning, amazing, or devastating

Bombshell came into our language in the beginning of the 18th century, initially used simply as another way of referring to a bomb.

Major General Sibourg being upon his Command in the Trenches the Seventh at Night, receiv’d a Contusion in the Breast, from a piece of a Bomb Shell; but the Surgeons give us hopes of his Recovery.
The London Gazette, 1 Sept. 1711

The figurative use appears to have come about in the middle of the following century. A bombshell need not be of a political nature, of course, but we often encounter it used in this context.

The most cheering feature is the bold and manly set of resolutions transmitted by Gov. Haight, of California, which represent the feelings and sentiments of his people. These resolutions have proven a veritable bomb-shell in the Radical camp.
The Vicksburg Herald (Vicksburg, MS), 28 Feb. 1868

A somewhat distinct use of bombshell is found when referring to a person (usually female) of exceptional beauty. In early use this was often paired with blonde, in all likelihood due to the 1933 movie which served as a vehice for Jean Harlow, titled The Blonde Bombshell.


Definition - To give out (information) surreptitiously

Leak is not a new word, and over the centuries has found itself used to describe the release of many different substances, most of which we are not interested in focusing your attention on. We have, however, been referring to the surreptitious dissemination of information as leaking since at least the middle of the 19th century.

There is a good deal of stir at Washington, we hear, about the supplementary Ostend Correspondence, of which we spoke with great assurance some week since. The doubting as to its existence was from the first confined to those who, in the simplicity of their ignorance, had not yet learned the substance of the correspondence that was furnished to Congress. And of course the believers are in great stress to learn who leaked the information.
The New York Times, 21 Mar. 1855


Definition - to charge with a crime or misdemeanor; specifically : to charge (a public official) before a competent tribunal with misconduct in office

We regret to inform you that, as much as you might wish it were so, impeach and peach do not share an etymology. The name of the fruit may be traced back to the Latin malum persicum (“Persian fruit”); the accusation word also comes from Latin, but in this case it is from impedicare (“to fetter").

Many people find themselves confused by the matter of how to use impeach properly in a US political scandal. The confusion comes mainly from the fact that impeach may be used to mean “to charge with a crime” and also “to remove from office.” In the U.S. impeachment refers to the leveling of charges, not to the removal from office (although the former may well lead to the latter). Three U.S. presidents have been impeached (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton once each, and Donald Trump twice), although none were removed from office (all were impeached by the House of Representatives and acquitted by the Senate).

Mr. Egnew rose to inquire, whether it was intended to call up, for decision, the resolution offered by Mr. Rogers, on Monday, directing an attempt to impeach the President of the United States.
The National Gazette (Philadelphia, PA), 14 Nov. 1827


Definition: a room (as in a hotel) in which a small group of politicians carry on negotiations

Many people have conducted business of one type of another in smoke-filled rooms over the years, but somewhere along the way we got the idea that this was the natural environment for a politician doing something unsavory. There are not nearly so many smoke-filled rooms available today, and the number will in all likelihood continue to diminish, but it seems likely that the phrase will stick, and we will continue to refer to shady political negotiations with this term.

At our polling places men showed that they would not accept women on an equality with themselves in other ways besides voting against suffrage. Any old, dirt-filled, smoke-filled room has always been good enough for men election officers to receive and count votes in.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), 4 Nov. 1915


Definition - News reports that are intentionally false or misleading

The concept of fake news has likely been with us for only slightly less time than that of real news. However, we seem to have only begun putting these two words together to refer to reports given with deceptive intent in the late 19th century.

Fake News. The following is handed to us for publication: Sunday’s Enterprise says that I and a companion were run over by the Neptune and thrown into the water. As can be proved by more than one, we did not so much as get our feet wet, nor were we helped into the Neptune. Clarence Collins.
The Kearney Daily Hub (Kearney, NE), 7 Jul. 1890

It's unlikely that fake news will find itself defined in our dictionary any time soon. This is not due to any feelings we may have about the word (lexicographers try to not have feelings about words, much like scientists with lab animals), but rather because it is a self-explanatory pairing; just as we do not give an entry for red car, because that is just a car that happens to be red. We do provide an entry for red carpet, since this also has the meaning of “a greeting or reception marked by ceremonial courtesy,” so if fake news takes on a larger meaning that can't be explained by its component parts, said carpet is what we just may roll out some day.


Definition - to be uncooperative, obstructive, or evasive

Before stonewall referred to being uncooperative, it had a more overt political meaning (which is still in use today), which was “to engage in obstructive parliamentary debate or delaying tactics.” This sense appears to have come to us from Australia, a land where people have been stonewalling since the 1870s.

There could only be two reasons for stonewalling. Either the thing to be stonewalled must be in itself a bad thing, or it must be necessary to stonewall that thing in order to prevent some other wrong.
The Australasian (Melbourne, Aus.), 29 Jan. 1876

In addition to its meanings relating to delay and obstruction, stonewall is also used in the slang of cricket (the game), meaning “to play defensively.” And before any of these meanings took hold stonewall was used in a literal fashion, meaning “to build walls of stone.”

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