‘Ground game’ election strategy has football roots

“A 1921 article in the Charlotte Observer previewed a matchup between the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the Davidson Wildcats by noting that ‘the aerial game’ was expected to be ‘used extensively by both teams,’ while ‘a great ground game if successful is also hazardous.’

“It would take another 60 years for the football terms to enter the political field of play. In a 1981 column for the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Young, then between stints as U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, made the athletic analogy explicit.

” ‘So get ready for the big playoffs in 1982 and the Super Bowl in 1984,’ Mr. Young wrote, alluding to the coming midterm and presidential elections. ‘The far right will take to the air. The opposition will launch a new ground game, which would be helped by an air attack if the money is available.’ ”

— From “How ‘Ground Game’ Moved From the Gridiron to Politics” by Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 5, 2014)

‘Tacky’: A study in upward mobility?

“The tasteless meaning of ‘tacky’ originated in the American South, where the word originally referred to a scrawny or broken-down horse….

“Within a few decades, ‘tacky’ had extended to humans, serving as a self-deprecating label for poor white Southerners who were identified with their equine counterparts. As a North Carolinian wrote in an 1836 letter documented in Norman E. Eliason’s book ‘Tarheel Talk,’ ‘I tell them I don’t know any better for I’m a mountain tackey sartin [certainly].’

“The word then made the move from noun to adjective.  A writer from Charleston, S.C., explained in 1890 that ‘tacky’ applied to ‘persons of low ideas and vulgar manners, whether rich or poor’ who exhibit ‘an absence of style.’ Clothing, he said, was considered tacky if it was ‘cheap and yet pretentious.’

“But that gaudy style wasn’t always a source of shame. Also in 1890, a Kentucky correspondent for the journal Dialect Notes reported that ‘recently we have had “tacky parties,” where the guests dress in the commonest and most unfashionable costumes.’  Such parties (often featuring awards for tackiest costumes) persisted throughout the South, particularly in Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.”

— From “The Gauche Origins of the Word ‘Tacky’ “ by Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal (July 18, 2014)

The Senate’s first filibusterer?

“The roots of ‘filibuster’ go back to a Dutch word for a pirate or privateer, ‘vrijbuiter.’ …. Dutch colonists of the 16th century used the term for pirates they encountered in the West Indies. In English it became ‘freebooter,’ in French ‘flibustier’ and in Spanish ‘filibustero.’

“In the mid-19th century, ‘filibustero’ became a key term in Latin America as soldiers of fortune, often hailing from the U.S., went on unauthorized expeditions to overturn Spanish colonial rule and take control of territories for themselves. These adventurers earned the ‘filibustero’ label, Anglicized as ‘filibuster’ in the American press….

“[In 1853] the word came up as the House of Representatives debated whether to annex Cuba. A North Carolina Democrat, Rep. Abraham Venable, broke with his party to denounce the idea as U.S. piracy, or as he put it , ‘now in our tongue filibuster, but still a freebooter.’ His fellow Democrat, Rep. Albert G. Brown of Mississippi, turned the label around on him — and began its transition to a new political meaning about hijacking the debate itself.  ‘When I saw my friend standing on the other side of the House filibustering, as I thought, against the United States, surrounded, as he was, by admiring Whigs, I did not know what to think.’ ”

— From ” ‘Filibuster’: A Pirating Maneuver That Sailed Into the Senate” by Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 25, 2020) 

Buncombe, bunkum, bunk…. debunk!

” ‘Bunk’ already had a fascinating history in American usage before [William E. Woodward‘s 1923 novel by that name] appeared. In its nonsensical meaning, ‘bunk’ is a shortened form of ‘bunkum.’ That word goes back to 1820, when Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina, gave a long, irrelevant speech on the floor. He admitted to his colleagues, ‘I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe,’ a county in his home district.

” ‘Speaking to Buncombe’ then entered political parlance to refer to pointless oratory. In the late 1830s, that expression got shortened to ‘speaking (or talking) Bunkum,’ using a playful alternative spelling for ‘Buncombe.’ Only in the 1840s did ‘bunkum’ begin to stand on its own to mean ‘claptrap,’ especially of the political kind.

” ‘Bunkum’ then got clipped to ‘bunk’ by the late 19th century. The humorist Finley Peter Dunne used it in 1893, when a character assesses two replicas of Irish villages at the Chicago World’s Fair. One of them, he says, ‘is th’ real Irish village,’ while ‘th’ other one from Donegal is a sort of bunk.’

“Thomas Edison was widely quoted as saying ‘Religion is all bunk,’ causing such an uproar in 1910 that he was forced to clarify that his quarrel wasn’t with the existence of God. Henry Ford, arguing against U.S. involvement in World War I in 1916, notoriously told an interviewer, ‘History is more or less bunk.’

“By the time Woodward wrote ‘Bunk,’ the slang term was well entrenched. But Woodward didn’t coin ‘debunk.’ Newspaper databases now reveal earlier uses, such as a 1915 article in the New York Sun profiling Arthur S. Hoffman, a founder of the American Legion: ‘And yet in his quiet, emphatic way he kept boring and boring in a convincing manner, debunked and denuded of all that was not fact.’

“Still, Woodward’s novel undoubtedly introduced ‘debunking’ into mainstream use, and that’s no bunk.”

— From “What ‘Debunking’ Owes to a 1923 Novel and Buncombe County, N.C.” by Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 4, 2019)

“Bunkum” as a superlative? Nicholas Graham checks it out. And William Safire notes its contribution to “hokum.”