Mind their language

Boondoggles, bellwethers and poli-tic-al parasites: revisiting political expressions

EPA/Victor Lerena

Co-authored with Howard Manns

We started our election pieces by introducing some ordinary political expressions — those with not so ordinary histories. We felt it was time to revisit political expressions, with an eye to those that have come up this year, but also those we missed out on the first time!

The late Australian journo Paul Lyneham defined election campaigns as:

… a frantic attempt to inspire the apathetic with the implausible … a high-budget, low-quality soapie … in which leading pollies show their immense respect for voters by a combination of bribes and TV stunts.

Let’s see how these bribes and TV stunts are working out for those pollies, or rather, what kind of language comes up in the final throes of a campaign.

Astroturfing and boondoggling the pork barrels

The word astroturfing has come up a few times this election and it’s becoming a common election strategy. This one is a spin-off metaphor on the grass roots campaign, in other words, one that is organised by common “rank-and-file” supporters.

In contrast, astroturfing, named after synthetic grass, is one in which vested political interests (like political think-tanks, and corporations) are pulling the strings and/or funding a campaign meant to seem grass roots.

Cries of astroturfing emerged quite early in this campaign (or even a few weeks before), in reference to the findings of the Institute of Public Affairs vis-à-vis the “road safety tribunal”. That said, astroturfing is regulated in Australia and takes place more in American elections (for example Super PACs, the American Tea Party).

That said, as an aside, it’s worth remembering that movements like the Tea Party are in no way new to politics. There was an American political party in the mid-19th century known as the Know-Nothings. The party originally garnered this label because of its secretive nature and the answer its members would give when asked about its existence.

However, this Know Nothing moniker became a mantra representing the party’s political beliefs and their members came to respond to political questions with the answer:

I know nothing in our principles contrary to the Constitution.

Back to this year’s campaign, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s also been a lot of pork-barrelling. We covered _pork-barrelling _in our first piece but there’s an amazing variety of words that come up in relation to pork-barrelling over the campaign.

For instance, boondoggle has been making regular appearances during this year’s election campaign — recent suggested boondoggles include Malcolm Turnbull’s high-speed rail project and Bill Shorten’s sporting stadium.

Now, Australians generally enjoy railing against the invasion of American English expressions, and yet occasionally terms like boondoggle sneak under the radar without comment. It’s not surprising really – boondoggling is a glorious way to describe wasteful politically motivated expenditure. Besides, it has its origin (1920s) in the Boy Scouts’ braided lanyard (for hanging things like whistles). The inspiration was surely those other -oggle scout accessories – the woggle and toggle (perhaps even a dash of the carpentry joggle).

One American expression we’d like to see taken up is logrolling “mutual assistance in political or other action” — a kind of quid pro quo (you roll my log and I’ll roll yours). It started life being very positive, capturing the cooperation between neighbours in helping each other to move logs (rather like barn-raising). But like so many terms, once they hit the political arena they take a nasty turn for the worse.

Following the bellwether Left or Right

It’s getting to crunch time, and much is being made of bellwethers. A bellwether leads or indicates a trend, and in politics refers to regions whose political tendencies match those of a wider area and therefore might be used to predict the winner on election night. The division of Eden-Monaro in the south-east corner of NSW is considered a bellwether seat.

The original bellwether in the 1400s was the leading sheep of a flock, the wether in this case being the castrated ram around whose neck a bell was hung. So the original bellwether was egregious in the earliest sense of the word — it stood out from the grex (or flock).

But it wasn’t long before bellwether was applied contemptuously to people (and it must have been rude because it appears in Captain Francis Grose’s (1785) Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where it’s described as “the chief or leader of a mob”.

In any case, tracing the origins of bellwether, we’re left with a not-so-flattering description of voters as sheep.

We sheep spend our days (well, when not ignoring the campaign) wondering whether the bellwether will swing Left or Right. Much has been written about the origins of these terms in politics.

However, it’s worth noting, beyond politics, that the words left and right hint back to views of our body and how we viewed those who were right- or left-handed.

The left side of our body has typically been viewed as evil and an ill-omen. This leads languages to adopt various linguistic coping strategies if you will.

The word probably has its origins in Old English lyft, a word meaning “silly” or “foolish”. We didn’t use it as the complement for right until the 13th century. Until that point, we sheltered behind a euphemistic word winestra (literally “friendlier”) to placate the evil forces. The equivalent Latin word was sinister, which has obvious modern links. And speaking of those links …

Which bloodsucker shall steer our ship?

Pollies engage in boondoggles, astroturfing and logrolling to see who will get to ‘steer the ship’, as the political cliché for governing goes. It’s a political cliché that is not unfounded with the distant ancestor of the word govern being the Greek word kubernan (“steer a ship”).

Politics is a dirty business and those who engage in it can be sinister. The word politician is one that has had a fairly rocky history itself. The earliest sense around in the 1500s was overwhelmingly negative. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:

Politician: A schemer or plotter; a shrewd, sagacious, or crafty person.

This negative account grew out of earliest senses of politic (with reference to government); that saw a rapid decline from “prudent, sagacious” to “scheming, conniving”.

It’s not a surprising development. In fact, it’s a linguistic double-whammy effect really. Words to do with intelligence typically acquire overtones of deceitfulness (crafty, cunning and artful have gone the same way) and, as we described in our earlier piece, expressions relating to government typically deteriorate with time.

A couple of centuries later, Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary defines politician quite straightforwardly as “a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance”.

It wasn’t until considerably later, some time during the 19th century, that the word clambered out of the semantic abyss to take on a more neutral sense, the idea simply of “one engaged in political life; in conducting the business of the state”.

But the “semantic halo” (to use novelist C.S. Lewis’ term) around politician was never a comfortable fit — the negative senses never really left, and most current dictionaries embrace both senses.

But neutral and negative meanings are rarely happy bedfellows — derogatory senses usually end up grabbing more of the doona. And if the contributions to Urban Dictionary are anything to go by, politician is no exception — all 63 definitions are overwhelmingly disparaging. We leave you with the first of its definitions:

  1. A person who practices politics. “Politics” is derived from the words “poly” meaning “many”, and “tics” meaning “blood-sucking parasites”.

In sum, Lyneham defines vote as the apathetic being:

… forced to choose between the mob screwing them now and the mob who screwed them last time.

Good luck with yours.