Q From Barry Rein, California: Could you help to define an obscure term? In its online edition, The Economist called the Belgian prime minister a “serial trimmer”. Surprisingly, Google was of little help in defining this term. Can you explain what is a trimmer?
A No problem.
The problem with looking up trimmer online is that the political sense is swamped by references to tools that cut and neaten, such as hedge-trimmers and hair-trimmers. The political sense of the word isn’t now so common as it once was, though you can still find it — as you have discovered — at the heavyweight end of journalism.
The reference was originally to the trim of a yacht or sailing ship and to the action of keeping the vessel balanced against the forces of wave and wind. Sails continually need trimming and a person who does it can be called a trimmer.
In the late seventeenth century, this idea was applied to English politics during the administrations of George Savile, Lord Halifax. These were especially partisan times, with differing social and religious views fighting for supremacy in the decades following the English Civil War. He was an advocate of what is now fashionably called the third way, seeking a middle ground between extremes. His opponents began calling him and his supporters trimmers, supposedly members of a third party of neutrals and traitors, who figuratively trimmed their sails to accommodate prevailing political winds. In his defence, Halifax wrote a pamphlet with the title The Character of a Trimmer to set out his views. He even accepted the title, but in the sense of “one who keeps even the ship of state”.
His attempts to soften the term were unsuccessful, though they did help to ensure that the word entered the language. Trimmers today adapt their views to prevailing political trends not for the good of the country but for personal or political advancement. The Economist’s comment you quote describes the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, as “a populist and serial trimmer who will say or do anything to get elected”.
The serial part is a resurgence of a usage, fashionable in the 1990s and based on serial killer, for a person who repeatedly follows the same behaviour pattern, as a serial adulterer or serial truant.