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Hatchet Jobs and Hardball

Under the helpful subtitle The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, Grant Barrett has edited together a timely list of 600 examples of the genre, from before the foundation of the USA to the present day. Much of it, as the introduction points out, is the special jargon of Washington within the Beltway.

The cover of Hatchet Jobs and Hardball

Many of the terms included here are of long standing, such as boondoggle, bully pulpit, G-man, hawk and dove, Jim Crow, logroll, pork barrel, political football (for which evidence, perhaps surprisingly, can be found as far back as 1857), swing voter, and — inevitably — Watergate. Others are much more recent: actorvist (a politically involved actor), angry white male (one opposed to progressive laws), Axis of Evil, embed (journalists with US troops in the field), Iraqification, Mercuri method (a voter-verified electronic ballot system), panda hugger (a political figure thought to be too accommodating to the Chinese viewpoint), soccer mom, unconcede (though famous from the 2000 presidential election, it actually appeared four years earlier), and the punning weapons of mass distraction.

In Britain, we sometimes feel that our political language, like our politics, has been heavily influenced by the USA, but surprisingly few of the terms in this book have made it big in politics this side of the Atlantic. The obvious exception is spin doctor, with its associated terms prebuttal, on message, and sound bite. The modern political meaning of third way, a strategy that repudiates the traditional policies of both right and left, was borrowed by Tony Blair’s advisers from the US (though the term itself, in various senses, is much older). I discovered also that thought police, the term for a totalitarian police force which suppresses freedom of thought, is known from the US as early as 1944, slightly predating George Orwell’s use in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Our floating voter, for a person not attached to any political party, appears to derive from the US floater, though the original nineteenth-century sense of the latter was that the person’s vote could be bought.

Each entry contains a definition and, where appropriate, a note of the geographical areas or social groups in which the term may be heard, as well as whether it is still current. The larger part of every entry consists of examples of how the word has been used in printed sources. Introductory essays discuss aspects of political jargon, including the chad scandal of 2000, the terminology and influence of blogging, the continuing plague of new formations that use -gate, the trend towards naming legislation after people (Brady Bill, Megan’s Law) and the background to the term inside baseball, meaning the intricate knowledge and actions involved in an activity that are not usually known to the public, or, putting it another way, the boring technical details.

By its specialist nature, this isn’t a book for everyone, but if you want to make sense of the bafflegab coming out of Washington, you’ll find what you need here.

[Grant Barrett [ed.], Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, published by Oxford University Press USA; hardback, pp302; ISBN 0195176855; $25.00.]

Page created 30 Oct. 2004

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