Word of the Month: Election

Tuesday, 2 November is election day in the United States. On that day we select the next president and vice-president (or more accurately select the people who will select them), one-third of the US Senate, all of the House of Representatives, and numerous state and local officials. So, our word of the month is election, n., the selection of a person to fill an office, usually by votes of members of a particular body, ca. 1270, from the Old French and ultimately from the Latin electionem.

The words that follow are all related to elections:

527 organization, n., a political organization that is not affiliated with a party or specific candidate, 1999; from Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code which governs the taxes those organizations do or do not pay.

advance man, n., a person sent ahead of a candidate to prepare a location for a speech or other campaign event, esp. to ensure that there is a good crowd at the event, 1879. Earlier advance agent.

attack ad, n., a political advertisement that criticizes an opponent, 1976.

ballot, n., a piece of paper or other object that designates a voter’s selections in an election, 1549; from the Italian ballotta, or little ball, from round balls that were used to cast votes in Venetian elections.

barnstormer, n., a politician who makes a campaign tour with many brief stops, esp. in rural areas, hence the verb to barnstorm; from an earlier sense meaning a traveling theatrical performer; 1859 in the theatrical sense, 1884 in the political.

battleground state, n., a state where either candidate can expect to win in a US presidential election, 1992.

beltway, n., the highway (Interstate 495) that circles Washington, DC. Literal use to refer to the road dates to 1956. Metaphorically used to separate the political class from the rest of America, outside the beltway and inside the beltway, starting in 1975.

big tent, n., a political party or organization that encompasses a broad spectrum of views, 1955.

bleeding heart, n., one who is sympathetic to the poor and otherwise disadvantaged, also bleeding-heart liberal, 1938.

blue dog Democrat, n., a conservative, Southern Democrat, 1995; from the paintings of Cajun artist George Rodrigue and influenced by yellow-dog Democrat.

bounce, n., a sudden increase in support for a candidate after an event, 1980; also bump.

by-election, n., a British term for an election to fill a vacant parliamentary seat, 1880. In US parlance, a special election.

carpetbagger, n., a politician who moves into a new state or district in an attempt to be elected from that district, 1868; orig. Northern politicians who moved south during Reconstruction after the Civil War, after the luggage stereotypically carried by them.

cemetery vote, n., those who are deceased but maintained on the voting rolls and for whom votes are recorded on election day, 1891.

compassionate conservative, n., a politician who combines liberal and conservative policies, a centrist, 1962. In the 2000 election, George W. Bush declared himself a compassionate conservative, but he was far from the first to use the term.

dark horse, n., a candidate who receives the nomination as a compromise because the nominating convention cannot agree on the leading candidates, a long-shot candidate; orig. British horse-racing slang for a horse about which little is known, 1831; applied to US politics by 1844.

dirty trick, n., an under-handed ploy used to subvert an opponent’s campaign; the general sense of the term dates to 1674; first applied in the context of a political campaign in 1870; modern use is largely from the Watergate era and stems from the use of dirty tricks to refer to clandestine operations by the CIA in the 1960s.

election, n., the selection of a person to fill an office, ca.1270, from the Old French and ultimately the Latin electionem.

electoral college, n., a body charged with selecting a person to fill an office. College has been used in this sense since 1541. The specific term electoral college dates to at least 1691. In modern use, the term is usually used to describe the body of electors who select the President of the United States, although the term electoral college does not appear in either the Constitution or the Federalist Papers. As the 2000 election demonstrated, the president is not selected by popular vote. (Al Gore had more votes than George W. Bush.) Instead, each state and the District of Columbia selects a number of electors, equal to the number of representatives and senators from that state, who in turn select the president.

faithless elector, n., a member of the electoral college who does not vote for the candidate that he or she had pledged to vote for, 1967. There have been cases of this occurring in US history—the first was in 1796 when a Federalist elector from Pennsylvania voted for Thomas Jefferson rather than John Adams as he had pledged. The last was in 1976 when one of Gerald Ford’s electors cast his vote for Ronald Reagan—although in 1988 a West Virginia Democratic elector voted for Lloyd Bentsen, the vice presidential candidate, for president and for Michael Dukakis, the presidential candidate, for vice president. A faithless elector has never altered the final outcome of the election.

family values, n., a term denoting a set of conservative religious and social beliefs that represent and strengthen the American family. The term family values dates to 1966 and has been in political use since 1976 when the term appeared in the Republican party platform.

fat cat, n., a wealthy contributor to a political campaign, 1925.

favorite son, n., a national politician popular with voters from his home state or region, esp. one who uses that popularity to garner political favors or a place on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate, 1852.

gerrymander, n. & v., a method of defining a district so that it unfairly favors one political party over another, to define a district in this way, 1812; after Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts who led the 1812 redistricting effort in that state to favor the Democrats over the Federalists. The term was coined by newspaper editor Benjamin Russell, who when painter and sometime political cartoonist Gilbert Stuart pointed out that the map of one of Gerry’s new districts resembled a salamander, labeled it a gerrymander.

hard money, n., contributions to a specific candidate’s campaign as opposed to contributions to a party or other political organization, 1984; orig. a term used by unions to distinguish contributions of individual members to campaigns from funds in their general treasury which could not be used for specific campaigns, 1972; cf. soft money.

hatchet job, n., an instance of character assassination or malicious criticism, 1940.

hatchet man, n., a campaign worker who engages in character assassination or malicious criticism on behalf of his candidate, 1898.

horse-race journalism, n., news coverage that focuses on polling and campaign tactics rather than on the issues, 1986.

initiative, n., an act of legislation originating by petition of citizens and enacted via popular vote, bypassing the parliamentary process, 1889; cf. referendum.

inside baseball, n., intricate and highly technical knowledge of a subject, esp. politics or (of course) baseball; applied to baseball from 1908, politics from 1952.

limousine liberal, n., a wealthy liberal, 1969.

lobby, v., to advocate to legislators on behalf of a third party, 1837; from the practice of advocates to frequent the lobbies of the legislative chambers in the US Capitol. Hence lobbyist, 1863.

Mercuri method, n., a system of electronic voting where the voter examines the correctness of the electronic ballot, for example by comparing it to a printed copy, before the vote is finally cast, 2002. From Rebecca Mercuri, a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who proposed it.

mid-term, n., an election where congressional seats are contested, but the presidency is not at stake, 1933; cf. off-year.

NASCAR dad, n., a white, working class father, a demographic sought after by both parties, 2002; from the popularity of automobile racing among this demographic; cf. soccer mom.

NOTA, n., none of the above, a ballot choice in some states, 1980.

October surprise, n., news in the month before the election that can affect the outcome of the election in November, esp. news that is engineered by the incumbent candidate, 1980; the original October surprise, which did not come to pass, was the fear in the Reagan campaign that President Carter would announce the release of the hostages in Iran in the days before the election.

off-year, n., an election where no major offices are contested, 1870; cf. mid-term.

on message, adj., adhering to a pre-determined campaign strategy or policy, 1992.

overvote, v. & n., to cast a ballot for more than one candidate for a single office, a ballot so marked; 1970; also undervote, to fail to vote for any candidate for a particular office or a ballot so marked.

permanent campaign, n., the continuous pursuit of funds and political support from the populace even after having been elected to office, 1977.

photo op, n., an event staged to allow a politician to be photographed by the press with certain people or engaged in an activity, 1982; short for photo opportunity, 1974.

plebiscite, n., a vote by the populace to decide a public issue or to express non-binding political sentiment, esp. a vote to ratify an act of the legislature or a constitutional amendment, 1860; from the French, ultimately from the Latin plebiscitum.

poll, n., the counting of voters in an election, 1635; the time and place of an election, 1832; a survey taken to estimate public opinion on a particular topic or upcoming election, 1902. From the Middle English polle, meaning head, ca. 1290. Cognates are found in numerous Germanic languages.

pork barrel, n., a government appropriation that benefits a local constituency, 1873; probably from the pre-Civil War practice of distributing pork in barrels to slaves.

Potomac fever, n., an interest in national elective politics, 1944; from the Potomac River that runs through Washington, D.C.

presidential fever, n., a desire to become president, 1857. One-time presidential candidate and congressman Mo Udall once commented, “the only cure for presidential fever is formaldehyde.”

press the flesh, v., to shake hands, to greet the public, 1918.

primary, primary election, n., an election that makes a preliminary selection of candidates for office, 1792; so called because it is the first of a series of elections in the process of filling an office.

pundit, n., an expert who makes public pronouncements on a subject, a commentator, 1816 in general use, 1960 in the specific political sense; from the Hindi pandit, or learned man.

push poll, n., a method of influencing the electorate by posing biased questions in the guise of an opinion survey, 1994.

rapid response, adj., providing fast rebuttals and reactions to the actions and statements of one’s opponent, 1988.

recall, n., the removal of an elected official via petition and vote, 1902.

red state/blue state, n., a red state is a state whose electoral votes went to George W. Bush in 2000; a blue state is one that went to Al Gore in that election. By extension, red state represents conservative, working class, and evangelical Christian and blue state represents liberal and intellectual. These usages date to 2000 and are so-called because of the colored maps used by the television networks to show the election results. Prior to 2000, the terms and colors were used to designate states that went for one candidate or another, but there was no consistency in which colors were used for which party.

referendum, n., a public question that is decided by the voters, esp. to ratify an action of the legislature, 1847.

rope line, n., rope barriers used to separate a politician from the crowd at an event, by extension the crowd itself, 1980; to work the rope line is to walk along the rope line, greeting the public and shaking hands.

security mom, n., middle-class mother who is primarily concerned with the safety of her children in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, 2003; cf. soccer mom.

soccer mom, n., a middle-class mother who is involved in her children’s after-school activities, a desirable demographic because they are likely to vote; 1982, in political use since 1996.

soft money, n., contributions to a party or other political organization that can only be used for broad purposes, such as providing information about issues or registering voters, but not to support specific candidates, 1984; orig. a term used by unions to distinguish funds in their general treasury contributions which could not be used for specific campaigns from contributions individual members to campaigns, 1972; cf. hard money.

sound bite, n., a brief excerpt from a speech, a pithy line that is intended to be picked up and played on news broadcasts, 1976.

special interests, n.pl., groups that use their collective power to gain advantage from the political process through lobbying, organizing voters, or funding, 1889.

spin doctor, n., an expert in spinning, 1984.

spin, n. & v., a biased interpretation of an event or candidate intended to influence voters, to engage in such interpretations; 1977 for the noun, 1988 for the verb.

stemwinder, n., a notable or rousing speech or event, 1892; from the metaphor for a stemwinding watch, which was cutting-edge technology in the 19th century. Often misused to mean a boring speech or event, one where people wind their watches out of boredom.

stump speech, n., a political speech in an informal setting on the campaign trail, e.g., standing on a tree stump addressing a small crowd, a candidate’s standard campaign speech, 1834; hence the verb to stump, meaning to engage in electioneering, 1838.

Super Tuesday, n., an election day when many states hold their primaries, the exact day and participating states varies from year to year, 1976.

swing voter, n., a voter who does not necessarily vote for a particular party, a voter who can be convinced to vote for either candidate, 1958.

timber, n., characteristics that make one suitable for a particular office, esp. presidential timber, 1854; from the metaphor of woodworking.

town hall, adj., characteristic of a meeting between a politician and the voters, an opportunity for the public to question a candidate, 1977; from the direct democracy of public meetings in a New England town hall.

truth squad, n. & v., a group that verifies the veracity of statements made by a politician, to engage in such activity, 1952.

war chest, n., campaign funds, 1897.

water’s edge, n., a boundary, both literal and figurative, between domestic and foreign policy, the latter of which should not be the subject of partisan politics, 1939; from the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge.”

wedge issue, n., a matter which divides a political party or group, 1986; hence wedge politics, n., electioneering to divide and polarize the opposition, 1991.

whistle-stop, adj., characteristic of a campaign tour of many stops in small towns, traditionally, but not necessarily, taken by train, 1948; the original and most famous whistle-stop campaign was Truman’s in 1948.

yellow dog Democrat, n., a Democrat loyalist, 1911; from the idea that loyalists would vote for yellow dogs or curs if nominated.

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