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Political stripe

Q From Jo Leath: In Canada we recently lost the Leader of the Opposition, Jack Layton. Describing the tributes from diverse sources, the phrase repeated in TV, radio and newspapers was of all political stripes. After a few days I began to wonder whether we are a nation of zebras and tigers and pyjama manufacturers, and I have to ask where this idea of political stripes originated.

A First off, it’s not new, by any means. The earliest I’ve so far unearthed is in a speech to the US Congress in 1852 but it must be older. Commentators have found it a useful phrase to mean a person’s affiliations. It’s now more popular than it has ever been.

Over the past decade, the easiest way of bonding with an American of any political stripe has been to make a joke about the French or praise Blair.

Daily Telegraph, 4 Sep. 2011.

It would be good to think that the source was an animal association, but the only links of that sort which turn up in the record are idiomatic references to a cat of a different stripe. That phrase different stripe is also common and shows that political stripe is a special case of stripe in a related figurative sense. Like political stripe, stripe by itself is known from US politics of the 1850s onwards in the same sense.

Where it comes from is — for a change — indisputable. It derives from a slangy term of the 1820s onwards for the narrow strips of coloured material sewn to military uniforms to indicate rank, such as the three stripes of a sergeant.

Although I used to wear the colonel’s livery, yet I had the full corporal’s stripes on my coat.

London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew, 1861.

In the armed services, a person’s stripes were a mark of his status or position. Stripe soon shifted colloquially to refer generally to a person’s views or affiliations, or to his type or category, not only in politics but also in religion and other matters (criminals of all stripes, hero of a different stripe, a guest artist of some stripe) and more recently has extended to inanimate objects (magazines of every stripe, well-designed games of any stripe, folk music in many stripes).

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Oct. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 1 October 2011.