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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Uncommon knowledge

Have less, give more

ACCORDING TO a team of psychologists, the lower classes are a cut above. Given the opportunity to share money with an anonymous person, people who considered themselves lower in socioeconomic status shared more. When asked how much of one’s salary should be donated to charity, they designated a higher percentage. And, when confronted with a distressed person in need, they offered more help. These differences don’t seem to be innate. For example, after simply asking people to contemplate their socioeconomic status relative to those with higher socioeconomic status, people became more charitable. The authors theorize that people in the lower strata of society are particularly motivated by a greater dependence on — and, thus, concern for — social relationships, though affluent individuals may be more inclined to abstract charity (e.g., the environment).

Piff, P. et al., “Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

The Iraqi currency surge

THE DECADELONG debate over Iraq and Afghanistan has typically focused on the question of whether to surge or to pull out. While few doubt the surge played some role in the relative pacification of Iraq, a recent paper proposes another factor: the appreciation of the Iraqi currency, the dinar, between 2004 and 2008. Because many of the insurgents were paid mercenaries — not ideological extremists — fund-raising was a key driver of insurgent activity. However, by eroding the purchasing power of the foreign money that initially fueled the insurgency, the appreciation of the currency forced insurgent leaders to raise money inside Iraq — for example, by extortion — thereby undermining popular support. So what drove up the currency in the first place? Rising oil prices and the stimulus provided by Coalition spending.

Berck, P. & Lipow, J., “Did Monetary Forces Help Turn the Tide in Iraq?” Defense & Security Analysis (June 2010).

Big money

Researchers at Northwestern University asked people to think about being a boss or a subordinate, or to write about a powerful or powerless experience, and then asked them to draw the outline of a quarter from memory as accurately as possible. People who thought about being without power drew larger quarters. The same effect occurred for poker chips, with increasingly valuable chips (of the same size) being drawn increasingly larger for people without power. The effect disappeared when the objects to be drawn had no value and was reversed when smaller objects were more valuable, all suggesting that the brain is trying to compensate.

Dubois, D. et al., “The Accentuation Bias: Money Literally Looms Larger (and Sometimes Smaller) to the Powerless,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (July 2010).

Vote Hussein!

A BIG ISSUE in the 2008 presidential campaign was Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein. Some conservatives went out of their way to highlight the name — to remind voters of Obama’s foreign heritage — while liberals and the Obama campaign were correspondingly wary of its use. But was it actually a liability? No, according to a new study. In a sample of voters who were polled towards the end of the 2008 campaign, there were no major changes in favorability or voting intention as a result of being reminded of Obama’s full name. Unsurprisingly, conservatives became somewhat less favorable, while liberals became somewhat more favorable, after seeing the full name. More surprising was that moderates and independents became more favorable towards Obama — what the authors believe was a “dirty politics” backlash — though overall voting intentions didn’t change.

Block, R. & Onwunli, C., “Managing Monikers: The Role of Name Presentation in the 2008 Presidential Election,” Presidential Studies Quarterly (September 2010).

The marriage bubble

MANY PEOPLE assume that the decline of marriage in the last few decades is exceptional. An analysis by an economist at Clemson suggests instead that what we think of as the heyday of marriage — the middle of the 20th century — was actually pretty special. In fact, the 1890s were more like the 1990s than the 1950s. What changed, though, in the early 20th century were two things that greased the wheels of the marriage market. First, an improving labor market for men made them more desirable as husbands. Second, the wave of ethnically diverse immigrants who arrived around the turn of the century was gradually assimilated, which expanded the pool of acceptable mates.

Cvrcek, T., “America’s Settling Down: How Better Jobs and Falling Immigration Led to a Rise in Marriage, 1880-1930,” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


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The coming days

RWANDA holds a presidential election on Monday 9th August. President Paul Kagame is sure to win a second seven year term. This will provide a headache for the country’s foreign donors, who fund half of the government’s budget. Stick with Mr Kagame and their money will be spent well, perhaps better than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. This is likely to consolidate the hold on power of a president with a dictatatorial streak. Or, cut aid to a country that has come so far since a genocide that killed some 800,000 people in 1994, while the countries now giving Rwanda aid stood idly by.

ASIF ALI ZARDARI, Pakistan’s president, will be trying to rescue his presidency while parts of the country remain underwater. Some 1,600 people have died in floods in Pakistan. Heavy rains have also caused deadly landslides. Mr Zardari spent last week in London meeting Britain’s prime minister and taking photocalls with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Mr Zardari’s son and scion of Pakistan’s first family. His absence at such an important time is the kind of miscalculation that can finish political careers. For Pakistan, dealing with the inundations will be complicated by the arrival of Ramadan on Wednesday 11th August.

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS’S first week as president of Colombia begins. Mr Santos knows that his first move—working out how to respond to the outstretched hand proffered by Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, may be the defining one for his presidency. Mr Chávez needs enemies almost as much as he needs friends: he has kept Venezuela’s army happy by providing it with expensive weapons to guard against supposed threats from Colombia and even America, and invokes internal and external enemies to justify measures to bolster his power at home. He also has a record of treating fellow Latin American leaders who do not kowtow to him in a high-handed manner.  Mr Chávez turned up a couple of hours late for his first meeting with Brazil’s current president.


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Beach-Blanket Lingo

When Jake Tapper of ABC’s “This Week” asked Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey last month for his opinion of the MTV reality series “Jersey Shore,” the contempt in the governor’s voice was obvious. “What it does is it takes a bunch of New Yorkers — most of the people on ‘Jersey Shore’ are New Yorkers — drops them at the Jersey Shore and tries to make America feel like this is New Jersey,” Christie said. In other words, in the parlance of the Jersey Shore, the show is about a bunch of bennies — disagreeable tourists from the metropolitan New York region who crowd the beaches every summer.

When it comes to the seasonal exodus of sun worshipers to the Jersey Shore and other beach spots around the country, language can get fiercely local. It starts with the fundamentals: how do you describe your prospective trip to the beach? In Oregon, you might say you’re going “to the coast.” In New Jersey, you invariably go “down the shore.” Baltimore natives, meanwhile, say they’re going “down the ocean” — but in Baltimorese (make that Bawlmerese), the phrase sounds more like “downy eaushin.” The down of “down the shore” and “down the ocean” doesn’t necessarily imply a southward journey. As in many dialects along the Eastern Seaboard, down can be used as a preposition indicating movement from the inland toward the shoreline.

Once you get to your destination, you might find that the locals have some colorful epithets for you. Old-time New Englanders have disdain for the summer people. On the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, the come-heres are pitted against the from-heres. Hawaiians call white visitors to the islands haoles. West Coast surfers, a territorial lot, have a plethora of terms for nonlocals: Trevor Cralle’s “Surfin’ary: A Dictionary Of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak” lists put-downs like hondo, inlander, flatlander, valley and casper. (The last one is reserved for tourists whose pallid complexion resembles that of Casper the Friendly Ghost.)

On the Jersey Shore, the two main terms for unpleasant outsiders are bennies and shoobies. Roughly speaking, bennies are those who descend from the New York area to the beach towns of Monmouth County and northern Ocean County (like Seaside Heights, where MTV shot the first season of “Jersey Shore”). Shoobies generally come from the Philadelphia region to towns farther south, with the southern tip of Long Beach Island marking the dividing line between the realms of bennies and shoobies.

Shoobies came first, historically, thanks to the convenient train lines that have run from Philadelphia to Atlantic City since the late 19th century. As John T. Cunningham explained in his 1958 book, “The New Jersey Shore,” day-trippers from Philly took advantage of the $1 round-trip fare to make excursions to the shore, especially on Sundays. “That day,” Cunningham wrote, “week in and week out, found swaying Atlantic City-bound coaches teeming with Philadelphia families, laden with their ‘shoe box lunches.’ ”

Those lunches packed in shoe boxes were so associated with the influx of Philadelphia visitors that they likely gave rise to the term shoobie. The word researcher Barry Popik has traced the localism back to a 1952 recollection of Edward Brown, then a lifeguard in Ocean City, about 10 miles south of Atlantic City. Brown recalled that certain beaches “attracted hordes of ‘shoobies,’ day-trippers or weekend visitors who didn’t have a clue as to what the ocean might do in a fit of whimsy.”

Bennie or benny, though a newer word, is shrouded in greater mystery. The first print appearance documented by the Dictionary of American Regional English is in an unpublished paper by Robert A. Foster, detailing a lexical survey of New Jersey undertaken in 1977 and 1978. Foster wrote that bennie refers to “tourists from New York City and North Jersey,” and speculated that it comes from the Jewish name Benny, used as a label for Jews in general, “well-known in working-class New York City.”

Since then, a raft of other theories has been proposed to explain the origins of bennies. Some say it’s an abbreviation for the “beneficial rays” soaked up by the beachgoers — or for the mutual benefits enjoyed by the visitors and the locals who profit from them. Others relate it to the “Benjamin Franklins” (100-dollar bills) that tourists would spend. Still others claim that it’s an acronym for the chief points of departure from the north, often given as Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York. The story goes that train riders’ luggage tags were stamped with BENNY, but the lack of evidence suggests this is as mythical as the canard that posh originally stood for “Port Out, Starboard Home” (supposedly referring to the most desirable cabins on passenger ships between Britain and India).

Paul Mulshine, a columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, witnessed the birth of the bennie brouhaha in the mid-1970s, when “Bennies Go Home” bumper stickers began showing up around Ocean County, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. Mulshine doubts the acronym story, as well as Foster’s Jewish-name theory. “The ethnic variant I’ve instead heard is that it is derived from bene, the Italian term for ‘well,’ ” Mulshine told me. “Italian-Americans have traditionally had a somewhat loud and flashy approach to summering at the shore. And they are much more likely to have been the target of lampooning by the locals in the area where bennie sprung up.” Though that explanation might fit well with the stereotypical “Guidos” and “Guidettes” of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” Mulshine concedes that the true etymology of the term “probably can never be known.”

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.


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