William Safire has been chronicling the political lexicon in his Safire's Political Dictionary for 40 years. In the book, the New York Times "On Language" columnist not only defines words and phrases like "earmark," "trial balloon" and "zipper problem," but also where they came from.
For example, "change," one of the biggest words in this year's presidential race, was also flung around in the election of 1864.
"They took a famous phrase, 'Don't change horses in the middle of the stream,' to support Abe Lincoln against Gen. [George] McClellan," Safire tells Renee Montagne. "And the counter shot was 'change horses or drown.'"
Many of the phrases in Safire's dictionary, which has just been released with its first update in 15 years, contain an initial definition, and then its opposite. So, a "'fact-finding trip' leads to a 'truth squad' that usually shoots holes in a fact-finding trip," he says.
'A Hail of Dead Cats'
"What the political language looks for is word pictures," Safire says. "For example, when somebody leaves 'under a cloud'. That's been used so often that it lost its punch. But when you say someone leaves in 'a hail of dead cats,' all of a sudden that'll wake somebody up. A vivid metaphor can make a speech and also it can make a charge."
Alliteration can also be effective in the political arena, Safire says. President Eisenhower had used "prophets of gloom and doom," Safire notes. So when he was a speechwriter for Vice President Spiro Agnew, Safire created the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" to describe defeatists in the Vietnam War era. The phrase was later applied to the media.
Safire, who notes that he's been described as a "vituperative right-winger nut," prides himself on not taking sides when it comes to defining political language. So he doesn't hesitate to call waterboarding a form of torture.
"When I put on my lexicographic hat, the dictionary writer, I try to work it right down the middle. And I've been scrupulous about that. I think somebody who turns to a dictionary should get it straight and bipartisan."
'A Corrupt Bargain'
Words and phrases come and go, but some come back into use after fading into obscurity.
"We're all talking about, will there be a deal made at the Democratic convention?" Safire says. He notes that Jon Meacham of Newsweek said it could be a "corrupt bargain." That's a reference to the 1824 convention, "when Henry Clay got together with John Quincy Adams and they joined forces and they defeated Andrew Jackson," Safire says. "As a result, Clay became the secretary of state, in what was called then a 'corrupt bargain.'"
"So we've reached back in history, pulled that phrase out and, believe me, if they try to make a deal in Denver ... whatever deal is made will be denounced as a corrupt bargain," he says.
- Candidates Need to Clean Up Their Language
- Susan Jacoby Attacks 'American Unreason'
- Snap! Network News Rocks the Slang
- U.S. Avoids Calling Iraqi Violence a 'Civil War'
- Translating the State of the Union Lexicon
- 'Hatchet Jobs and Hardball': New Political Terms
- U.S. Politics and 'Litmus Test' Hot Topics
- Slate's Explainer: What's an 'October Surprise?'
- What's Bafflegab? A Look at Political Slang
- Geoff Nunberg, 'Going Nucular'
- 'Spin,' Present at the Creation
- 'New York Times:' William Safire's 'On Language' Columns
- About Safire
- Sunday Puzzle
- William Safire Retires 'Times' Op-Ed Column
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.