The boondoggling race to the White House

The language of the American presidential election is as highly flavoured as the frenetic final countdown to the polls. Susie Dent unravels the terminology

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No one expects the tone of an election to be mild-mannered, least of all a presidential one. The political arena can be a vicious one – that very word "arena" comes from the Latin for "sand", thanks to the need for copious amounts of it to soak up the gladiatorial blood and gore of presidential battles. Yet the lexicon of the American electoral process is a curious one, an unexpected mix of the shady and the whimsical, and of terms that are more suggestive of a Bill & Ted adventure than political life or death. Lovebombing, packing and cracking, squeakers and seabiscuits are all in a stateside lexicon with a history and resonance at least as rich as our own.

In a speech made in 1936, President Roosevelt offered the nation a surprising strategy for the toughest of economic times: "If we can 'boondoggle' ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come." His speech propelled a cosy Boy Scout term for making simple things into a punchy weapon in the political arsenal, and there it has stayed. Seven decades on, the term and the practice of "boondoggling" are alive, well and entirely deplored. Roosevelt's dream focused on the positive side of making small things that collectively made a difference: the first "boondoggles" were leather braids worn as Boy Scouts' neckerchiefs. But the almost simultaneous hijacking of the term came when The New York Times ran a sensational article with the headline, "$3,187,000 Relief is Spent to Teach Jobless to Play... Boon Doggles Made". The paper's shocking revelation was that taxpayer's hard-won earnings were apparently being spent, in the depths of the Great Depression, on teaching the unemployed how to make leather thongs. It didn't take long before public outrage turned the act of boondoggling into something a politician must always detect in the opposition and never in themselves. President Obama and Mitt Romney have duly each found their own targets.

In relative terms, "boondoggle" is a fairly new addition to the political lexicon. Presidential "candidates" take their name from the Latin for white, candidus, because Roman political hopefuls would always choose white togas as a way of conveying integrity and honesty. Elsewhere, even the doggedly functional "ballot" has its own story – the word derives from the Latin for a "small ball", simply because early forms of voting involved dropping a small ball into an urn (white and black balls would be used to signify either a yes or no, hence our modern term "blackball").

Such terms aren't exclusive to US politics, of course; those that are, are often even more rewarding. Take the Byzantine process of the "primaries" (whose non-binding nature means they are dismissed semi-officially as "beauty contests"). Or the "caucuses", those local meetings at which party members express their preference for the party's presidential nominee. The story goes that, a short time before the Revolution, the caulkers of Boston – whose job it was to waterproof or "caulk" the harbour's boats and ships – had a heated dispute with some British soldiers in which a number of lives were lost. Secret meetings were held later that day at the caulkers' houses to decide on a plan of action and the appropriate punishment for the soldiers. The sound similarity between "caulkers" and "caucus" gives this story some credence, but the dates are against it. Not that the more likely origin is at all dull: "caucus" is probably the Anglicisation of an Algonquian term for "he who urges or encourages": North American Indian names being commonly adopted by secret associations in 18th-century New England.

While Britons have witnessed such political parties as the Grumbletonians, the Warming Pans, and the Jumping-Cats (to name a few from many centuries ago), North Americans have not been without their own inventive epithets. Beyond the Tea Party movement, as vehemently opposed to taxation as their Boston forbears, there are several others that enjoy attention. The "Grand Old Party" is warmly espoused as a nickname by Republicans, who have been GOPs since the 19th century. The Blue Dog Coalition is a group of Democrats who espouse more conservative policies than their party proper. The term is credited to the Texas Democrat Pete Geren, who went over to the Bush camp for the reason that true Democrats had been "choked blue" by extreme members from the left. The Blue Dogs nod to their "Yellow Dog" confederates – southerners said to be so loyal they would vote even for a yellow dog if it were a Democrat.

Political boundaries in their most physical terms can make or break an election. The manipulation of electoral districts can make them either "blue-hot" or "red-hot" depending on the level of intensity felt in either camp to such shifting ground. This is "gerrymandering", another term that seems as relevant today as when it was first coined. For such a serious business, it came about in a surprisingly offhand way: exactly 100 years ago, the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, created a new voting district, apparently moving its boundaries to favour his Democratic party. According to a source of the time, his decorator pointed out that the outline of Gerry's new territory on the map looked just like the lizard-like salamander, and "gerrymander" was born. Today's "packing and cracking" is its less subtle equivalent: "packing" refers pulling more supporters into a district, "cracking" to splitting a constituency to prevent supporters of the opposing party from voting en masse. The Romans would have been appalled.

Even days of the week have their own epithets in the political calendar. Super Tuesday is the day on which most states hold their primaries. Its darker partner is Dirty Tricks Thursday: the Thursday before an election when candidates release scandalous stories to garner bad publicity for their opponent: the timing means the accused will have little time to refute the allegations. Last week, the Romney camp quietly released a Spanish-language advert in which Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro's niece appear to declare they would each vote for Obama if they were American. Many such stories are led by "narrative politics", in which more attention is paid to a politician's life story than to his more traditional credentials. The term took centre stage in 2003 when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California and adopted a style of politics appropriate to "The Governator".

In recent weeks, Romney and Obama have been accused of blatant "hispandering", a blend of "Hispanic" and "pandering" coined in rebellion against the calculated paying of political attention to the needs of the Hispanic community, the group that may decide this election. The closeness of the race may require such efforts: this election is a "squeaker" indeed, and unlikely to produce a seabiscuit, a candidate who comes from behind to win, like the racehorse of that name who beat all the odds to become a symbol of hope in the Great Depression.

When the winner steps up to the presidential rostrum in January, he will be seen on a platform public speakers in the Forum of ancient Rome would recognise. Such stands were decorated with the beakheads of captured warships, the spoils of war. Rostrum is Latin for "beak". Time will tell what trophies the next president will display. We can only hope it won't be a cabinet of boondoggles.

Susie Dent is the lexicographer on 'Countdown' and author of 'How to Talk Like a Local'

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