Bad name

When political names become insults

ENGLISH ADDED another word to its political lexicon recently: Breitbarting, or intentionally taking a statement out of context for political ends.

The new word surfaced on political websites after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video of Shirley Sherrod, a Department of Agriculture official, edited so she appeared to admit being biased against a white farmer. (In the full video, released later, it became clear that Ms. Sherrod was telling a story about overcoming her initial prejudice to help the farmer save his land.)

It was only a few days after the video was released that the verb made an appearance: one early use was by The Nation’s Ari Melber, quoted on as saying “We live in a world where anyone can be Breitbarted.”

This is what linguists call an eponym, a word created from a person’s name. There are plenty of eponyms that are positive, reflecting their namesakes’ contribution to human knowledge: sandwich, leotard, cardigan. But those with an origin in the rough-and-tumble world of politics tend to be much less so.

Breitbart is just the latest political figure to give rise to a negative eponym, following in the footsteps of borked (meaning attacked in the media, from the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Robert H. Bork), quisling (a traitor, from Vidkun Quisling, who headed Norway’s government during the Nazi occupation), and gerrymander (to draw political boundaries for partisan advantage, fusing the name of Elbridge Gerry, a former governor of Massachusetts, with salamander, which is what the district drawn that way supposedly resembled).

More recently we’ve seen fisking (a point-by-point critique of a piece of writing, often from the conservative end of the spectrum, after British journalist Robert Fisk, whose work has often been given that treatment), and Willie Hortonize (to use racial prejudice for political purposes, after Willie Horton, the black convict whose furlough helped sink the Dukakis presidential campaign). There’s even the now-obscure swartwout, which means to embezzle public money and then flee, from the name of Samuel Swartwout, a 19th-century New York customs collector.

Why are so many political eponyms overwhelmingly negative? Leaving aside the presidential adjectives (Jeffersonian, Nixonian, Clintonian, Reaganesque) and the political ideologies (Maoism, Peronism, Thatcherism, Gandhism) it seems that if your name is associated with a political word, you’re more likely to be infamous than famous. This applies to place names, too: Buncombe (as the source of the word bunkum), Tammany Hall, Teapot Dome, the Beltway, and the Watergate apartment complex are none too pleasant in their associations.

It’s interesting that Breitbart was chosen for eponymization rather than Sherrod. Part of it must be due to Breitbart’s reputed history of giving less than the full story (he was also the source for some selectively edited videos which implied that voting-rights group ACORN gave advice on tax evasion). Part of it must be linguistic: breitbart is easier to conjugate and use as a verb than sherrod: Is it sherroded? Or sherrodded? (And where do you put the stress?) But part of it must be because Sherrod is indisputably the victim here, and thus not a suitable source of an active verb. (After the initial report forced her to resign, the DailyKos website jocularly coined another one, based on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who accepted her resignation: “vilsacked: being fired from your job over an event before the boss has all the facts.”)

The negative spin on most political eponyms could well reflect our modern distaste for political leaders. But it might also be that eponymization itself is becoming a partisan political tool. When Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government in the budget standoff of 1995 and 1996, it was variously described as newtered or Gingriched (or, occasionally, gingrinched, after the Grinch of Dr. Seuss, who also tried to steal Christmas). In 1996 Senator Bill Napoli of South Dakota had his name turned into a verb for a particularly brutal sexual assault when he tried to explain just how bad a rape needed to be to justify an abortion in his state.

Political eponymizing has also been a tool for humorists who make a living mocking politicians. David Letterman managed to turn the famously unpronounceable former governor of Illinois into a verb: blagojeviching, or lying and cheating. (You can also buy a “Blagoing, going, gone!” T-shirt online, if you haven’t tired of the former governor yet.)

Perhaps the pervasive practice of negative political eponymizing just proves what Shakespeare (who has recently been associated with a different political eponym, where his quotes are “Palinized,” or reworded to sound like they were spoken by Sarah Palin) set forth in Othello: “Who steals my purse, steals trash…But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed.”

These days, it seems, you don’t even have to steal your opponent’s good name; you just have to turn it into a verb.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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