Election Jargon

Elections are fertile source of slang and political jargon and the 2006 US midterm elections were no exception. At least two words came to the fore in this most recent election.

One is change election. A change election is one in which the electorate permanently changes its traditional voting pattern, ousting one party from power and replacing it with another. The term dates to at least 1992 when it was used in the Christian Science Monitor on 27 April 1992 in reference to voter dissatisfaction with the political parties in the Pennsylvania primary election of that year:

"This is a ‘change’ election," says G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University in Millersville, Pa. His polls also suggest widespread voter disaffection. Like many political observers here, he expects a significant decline in voter turnout.

But of course, the most famous word coming out of this year’s election is macaca. The word was uttered by Senator George Allen (R-VA) on 11 August in reference to S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old of Indian descent who was a campaign worker for Allen’s opponent, Jim Webb:

This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is…Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here.

Unfortunately for Allen, Sidarth was videotaping Allen’s remarks (a common tactic of campaigns in case the opponent makes a gaffe). The video appeared on YouTube and, in combination with other allegations of racially insensitive behavior on Allen’s part, touched off a firestorm.

The Allen campaign initially attempted to defend the Senator’s use of the word claiming it was a blend of Mohawk, a reference to Sidarth’s hair, and caca, meaning excrement. In other words, shithead. Not very nice, but at least not racist. Few believed this very strained explanation. Allen eventually lost the election by a mere 7,231 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast. Few doubt that without the macaca remark Allen would have won reelection and the Republicans would have retained control of the Senate.

Macaco, meaning a monkey or ape, has been in English use since at least 1774, when it was used by Oliver Goldsmith in his A History of the Earth and Animated Nature:

Of the monkies of the ancient continent, the first, he describes, is the Macaguo; somewhat resembling a baboon in size.

Hotten’s Slang Dictionary of 1874 contains an entry for the word Murkarker, which is defined as:

a monkey,—vulgar Cockney pronunciation of MACAUCO, a species of monkey. Jacko Macauco, or Maccacco, as he was mostly called, was the name of a famous fighting monkey, who used nearly fifty years ago to display his prowess at the Westminster pit, where, after having killed many dogs, he was at last "chawed up" by a bull terrier.

The word is a borrowing of macaco, either from France (where it had been in use since the late 17th century) or from Portugal (in use since the mid 16th century). It ultimately comes from Bantu kaku, an echoic term for the animal’s call. Macaque is from the same source.

Allen’s mother, Henrietta Lumbroso is French-Tunisian and after Allen uttered his remarks it was claimed by some that macaca is used a racially derogatory epithet in Tunisia. I have not been able to confirm this claim, but the word is a mildly derogatory term in Portuguese, where it has racist connotations if used by a light-skinned person in reference to a dark-skinned one. And of course in English calling a dark-skinned person a monkey is universally recognized as racist.

Another political term that appears to be getting more play now that the Democrats are in control of Congress is blue dog Democrat. A blue dog Democrat is a conservative one, especially a fiscally conservative democrat, not a particularly liberal one. Many of the newly elected Democrats in Congress are more centrist than is the norm for that party, so the term may be heard more in the coming months and years. The term, however, is hardly new, with citations going back to 1995, when it appeared in the Washington Times of 21 April:

They call themselves the blue-dog Democrats—yellow-dog Democrats turned blue by the choke hold put on them by their own liberal leadership.

The name comes from the paintings of Cajun artist George Rodrigue, who is famed for his images of blue dogs. In the early-to-mid-1990s a group of conservative Democrats would meet in the offices of Louisiana representatives Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes, both of whom had Rodrigue’s paintings hanging in their offices. (Both also eventually switched to the Republican party.) The group formalized their coalition in 1994, taking their name from the paintings. Despite the Washington Times citation above, it has nothing to do with turning blue. Nor is it a reference to blue states, as many believe.

The name is modeled after yellow dog Democrat. A yellow dog Democrat is not especially liberal, but is rather someone who will vote party line regardless of the circumstances. The New York Times records this from 11 March 1883:

There is no eagerness shown, however, among Republicans to seek office at this time, when Democrats can see nothing but certain victory awaiting them. "Why, we could nominate yellow dogs this Spring and elect every one upon the ticket by a big majority," said one of the Democratic ward statesmen to-day.

By 1911, the above quotation had been turned into a political buzzword when the Mansfield News (Ohio) had this on 22 April:

He favors a job for every "yellow dog Democrat" to keep him from want, exertion and worry.

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