The Word of the Week is — Daggers

Political talk is full of idioms. A politician is “over his skis” when he speaks out of turn and the TV pundits love to point it out. The first time, it’s a great metaphor, easily understood, even by those who’ve never tried the sport. He got ahead of himself and now he’s going to crash. Sadly the idiom is already tired from overuse.

The image became popular when Barack Obama used it to explain how Joe Biden happened to endorse gay marriage before the president stated that position, but it appears that it originated much earlier in the financial world. It appeared in print as far back as 1991 in an article about Goldman Sachs.

When our hypothetical politician does get over his skis, the pundits give him a choice: he can either “double down” (poker imagery) or to “walk it back,” meaning retract or back pedal. Brief research yields no authoritative history for “walk it back”. In 2013, the term was used in an article in relating to a gaffe by John Kerry. A reader questioned the meaning and origin and another reader suggested that a southern expression for “taking it back,” was “to walk that one back to the barn.”

“Thinking outside the box” is another tired metaphor used too frequently in political discussion for creative effort. Some have suggested that it comes from dance. It seems more likely that it originated in the 1970s and 80s with management consultants who challenged their clients to solve the “nine dots” puzzle.

Create the puzzle by arranging nine dots in a 3×3 square. The goal is, without picking up the pencil, to draw four straight lines that pass through every dot. It’s a simple solution, but it requires the lines to extend beyond the imaginary confines of “the box” and most people don’t do it. The puzzle itself is older than the idiom. It was first published in print in 1914.

Political discussion finds many idioms in sports and games. When an election is characterized as a “horse race,” we hear the terms “shoo in,” for a certain winner, and winning “hands down” in a decisive victory. These are both derived from horse racing, but with very different connotations. According to Oxford English Dictionary, “shoo in” (not “shoe in”) dating back to the 1920s, originally meant a crooked race in which the winner was a horse with such lackluster performance that it appeared at the finish line and had to be shooed across to victory. In 1867 the term “hands down” was used for a real winner, originating with the image of a jockey who must keep the horse reined in to make it run. A contestant who is so far ahead that he can afford to drop his hands and loosen the reins is one who wins “hands down.”

When a politician “throws someone under the bus,” we understand that he’s sacrificed that colleague to safeguard his own interests. William Safire first suggested that the term might have originated with minor league baseball players who travelled to games by bus, but not all idioms originate in sports. (Safire also noted the words, “under the bus” in Cyndi Lauper lyrics.) Merriam Webster’s theory seems more persuasive, showing examples of the idiom from British politics dating back to1980s.

Even in Britain, sometimes the political gossip is “fake news.” As far back as Queen Victoria’s day, it turns out to be a third hand rumor that the dour monarch declared, in response to a raunchy tale told at a dinner party, “We are not amused.” The author of the report didn’t even pretend that she was present, only that she heard it from a reliable source.

Apparently, however, Margaret Thatcher really did say “We have become a grandmother,” causing great scorn for usurping the “royal we” also known as the “majestic plural.” The naysayers said the imperious Thatcher was a “legend in her own imagination.”

When an interviewer asked if her nickname, “Daggers” Thatcher referred to her habit of stabbing colleagues in the back, the respondent said, “It’s because she’s three stops past Barking.” It’s a perfect example of an idiom because it makes no sense at all except to insiders. “Barking” is English slang for insane and Dagenham is three stops past Barking on the London underground.

Maybe it’s just the accent, but somehow, the Brits manage to make it more amusing than our U.S. political insults.