Book Review: Grant Barrett’s Hatchet Jobs & Hardball

Grant Barrett’s Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang is the most recent of Oxford University Press’s collection of specialty lexicons. OUP is engaged in publishing a number of books that take advantage of its tremendous research files on the English language. Hatchet Jobs and Hardball takes on the subject of terms associated with American politics.

Until the publication of Barrett’s volume, the best collection of American political slang terms was William Safire’s New Political Dictionary (Random House, 1993). Barrett’s book rivals Safire’s for utility as a reference. But the two books are not simply rivals, but rather complementary of each other.
Hatchet Jobs starts off with a rather uninteresting introduction by political operatives James Carville and Mary Matalin. The introduction is followed by a series of short essays on various topics in political lexicography. We have one on terms associated with electronic voting, one on the history of the phrase inside baseball, one on the suffix –gate, etc. But then we come to the heart of the book, the dictionary itself, over 600 terms arranged alphabetically from actorvist (a politically involved actor, 1995) to zoo plane (a plane filled with journalists that follows a politician’s plane during a campaign, coined in 1973 by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson).

What distinguishes Barrett’s dictionary from other collections of political slang, including Safire’s, is that Hatchet Jobs is a historical dictionary, including usage citations for each of the terms. We find out, for example, that the term compassionate conservative did not originate with George W. Bush in 2000. Instead, the term was first used on 19 August 1962 in reference to House Speaker Sam Rayburn in the New York Times, “Rayburn was in action a compassionate Conservative.” In 1981, the New York Times records Senator Orrin Hatch calling himself one, “I’m a conservative, and proud of it, but I’m a compassionate conservative.” It is the inclusion of the usage citations like these that makes Barrett’s book particularly valuable.

Barrett’s book has two major limitations. The first is that it largely addresses only political slang and the more obscure jargon terms. Standard terms, like electoral college, election, and poll are not included. This is understandable; Barrett had to limit his scope in some fashion and with over 600 terms Hatchet Jobs hardly skimps on the terms it includes, but the exclusion of standard terms limits its utility.

The second is that Hatchet Jobs is very much a straightforward dictionary. Beyond the definition, usage citations, and the occasional etymological note it does not include much background information on the terms. Many of the terms have fascinating historical notes and asides that are omitted or only briefly alluded to. It is in this respect that the book is complementary to a volume like Safire’s New Political Dictionary. Safire’s book includes many of these historical tidbits, but is lacking in that it does not include usage citations. The combination of the two books makes a powerful reference.

Hatchet Jobs turns up some surprising gems. The term thought police, for example, was not coined by George Orwell in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Rather Barrett has found a 1944 citation from a newspaper in Zanesville, Ohio. The term regime change, today so often associated with Iraq, was first used in 1956 in reference to changes proposed to the Communist regime in Poland. And the term family values, popularized in the 1992 presidential campaign, was actually coined in 1978.

And if you’re wondering about the title, a hatchet job is a character assassination (1940) and hardball is aggressive, ruthless competition (1972).

Hatchet Jobs and Hardball is an invaluable addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in politics or the political lexicon.

Hardcover; 301 pages; Oxford University Press; August 2004; $25.00.

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