Safire: 'Change' and Other Old Political Phrases "Change" may be the most common word being flung around on the presidential campaign trail this year. But William Safire, who chronicles political words and phrases, notes that "change" was big in Abraham Lincoln's day, too.

Safire: 'Change' and Other Old Political Phrases

Safire: 'Change' and Other Old Political Phrases

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William Safire, author of Safire's Political Dictionary, first published 40 years ago. Fred Conrad hide caption

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Fred Conrad

William Safire, author of Safire's Political Dictionary, first published 40 years ago.

Fred Conrad

William Safire has been chronicling the political lexicon in his Safire's Political Dictionary for 40 years. In the book, the New York Times "On Language" columnist not only defines words and phrases like "earmark," "trial balloon" and "zipper problem," but also where they came from.

For example, "change," one of the biggest words in this year's presidential race, was also flung around in the election of 1864.

"They took a famous phrase, 'Don't change horses in the middle of the stream,' to support Abe Lincoln against Gen. [George] McClellan," Safire tells Renee Montagne. "And the counter shot was 'change horses or drown.'"

Many of the phrases in Safire's dictionary, which has just been released with its first update in 15 years, contain an initial definition, and then its opposite. So, a "'fact-finding trip' leads to a 'truth squad' that usually shoots holes in a fact-finding trip," he says.

'A Hail of Dead Cats'

"What the political language looks for is word pictures," Safire says. "For example, when somebody leaves 'under a cloud'. That's been used so often that it lost its punch. But when you say someone leaves in 'a hail of dead cats,' all of a sudden that'll wake somebody up. A vivid metaphor can make a speech and also it can make a charge."

Alliteration can also be effective in the political arena, Safire says. President Eisenhower had used "prophets of gloom and doom," Safire notes. So when he was a speechwriter for Vice President Spiro Agnew, Safire created the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" to describe defeatists in the Vietnam War era. The phrase was later applied to the media.

Safire, who notes that he's been described as a "vituperative right-winger nut," prides himself on not taking sides when it comes to defining political language. So he doesn't hesitate to call waterboarding a form of torture.

"When I put on my lexicographic hat, the dictionary writer, I try to work it right down the middle. And I've been scrupulous about that. I think somebody who turns to a dictionary should get it straight and bipartisan."

'A Corrupt Bargain'

Words and phrases come and go, but some come back into use after fading into obscurity.

"We're all talking about, will there be a deal made at the Democratic convention?" Safire says. He notes that Jon Meacham of Newsweek said it could be a "corrupt bargain." That's a reference to the 1824 convention, "when Henry Clay got together with John Quincy Adams and they joined forces and they defeated Andrew Jackson," Safire says. "As a result, Clay became the secretary of state, in what was called then a 'corrupt bargain.'"

"So we've reached back in history, pulled that phrase out and, believe me, if they try to make a deal in Denver ... whatever deal is made will be denounced as a corrupt bargain," he says.

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Excerpts: 'Safire's Political Dictionary'

Safire's Political Dictionary


mistakes were made: A passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.

Politicians have had frequent occasion to lean on this crutch, a linguistic construction creatively described by William Schneider, at the American Enterprise Institute, as the past exonerative.

President Ronald Reagan took general responsibility in his 1987 State of the Union address for selling weapons to Iran in order to obtain the release of hostages, but sidestepped the rest of the Iran-contra scandal (using profits from the arms sales in an effort to overthrow the government of Nicaragua), saying, "we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so." Lt. Col. Oliver North, convicted of ordering the destruction of documents in trying to conceal this activity, had his conviction overturned because Congress had given him limited immunity. The bemedaled Marine said later: "I'm not ashamed of it. People say 'Mistakes were made.' But I'll also tell you lives were saved."

President Bill Clinton resorted to the same passive, impersonal admission in January of 1998, replying to questions about improper Democratic party fundraising activities with the bland "Mistakes were made here by people who did it either deliberately or inadvertently." In March of 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to defuse complaints about the firing of eight U.S. prosecutors, saying: "I acknowledge that mistakes were made here."

The unapologetic apology can be softened even further by prefacing it with a hypothetical "if." Anonymous aides to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied in 2005 that she had admitted to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the U.S. had abducted a German citizen by mistake. Instead, they insisted that Ms. Rice "had said only that if mistakes were made, they would be corrected."

A blame-spreading refinement is to cast the apology in the more distant present perfect tense. PLO leader Yasir Arafat took this tack when fending off criticisms in 2004 by Palestinian legislators, conceding that "Some mistakes have been made by our institutions." Connecticut's ex-governor John Rowland downplayed his admission of guilt to a federal corruption charge the same way, telling the press that "Obviously mistakes have been made throughout the last few years, and I accept responsibility for those."

A skillful further refinement is the subordinate-clause admission or error, compounding passivity and present-perfection with a conditional "whatever," as in this sentence of a George W. Bush speech urging Americans weary of war in the fall of 2006 to stay the course: "Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone."

The artful dodge of the impersonal apology has roots. President Ulysses S. Grant, fondly remembered by grammarians for his activist self-description, "I am a verb," appended a note to his final annual report to Congress on December 5, 1876, acknowledging the scandals that had plagued his two terms in office with the words, "Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit."

A disarmingly honest way of admitting error was shown by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, criticized in the 1940s for closing the elite Townsend Harris High School: "I don't make many mistakes, but when I make one it's a beaut!" It takes the wind out of the sails of criticism.

When the lexicographer admonished a political figure for using the much-ridiculed "mistakes were made," he replied, not for attribution, "lessons were learned."

spinmeister: A disparaging term for an expert at presenting negative facts in the most positive possible way.

Spinmeister surfaced shortly after the synonymous spin doctor. The oldest example in the OED comes from Newsweek in 1986: "The spinmeisters can't take all the credit for the burst of patriotic solidarity." The -meister suffix (from the Yiddish meyster, "master") has been attached to many words over the years, always with negative impact. Among them: hypemeister, jargonmeister, newsmeister, perkmeister (one who dispenses favors and patronage in political organizations), and, the closest parallel to spinmeister and perhaps partly an inspiration for it, schlockmeister, where schlock (probably from the German Schlacke, "dregs, dross") applies to cheap or shoddy goods of all sorts, including information. For example, from James Michael Ullman's 1965 novel, Good Night, Irene: "Public relations, an elastic term that encompasses everything from crude schlockmeisters operating out of phone booths to high-powered representatives of billion-dollar corporations."

The title of spinmeister has been awarded to a wide variety of personages, including political consultants, staffers, publicists, pundits, press secretaries, and office-holders, from the president on down. Calvin Trillin entitled one of his "deadline poems" for The Nation in 2006 " 'Mushroom Cloud' Rice, The Icy Spinmeister, Tries Again." This was an allusion to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 2002 likening of Saddam Hussein's suspected nuclear weapons program to a smoking gun that could turn into a mushroom cloud.

In using the word applied to women, spinmeister is practically required, since the grammatically logical alternative for a female spinner of spin would be spinster, a term that was once gender-neutral but which has been applied mainly to unmarried women, pejoratively "old maids," for the last several centuries.

weasel words: Ambiguous speech; deliberately fuzzy phraseology.

"One of our defects as a nation," said Theodore Roosevelt in 1916, "is a tendency to use what have been called weasel words." He had popularized the phrase as president, and gave this example of what he meant: "You can have universal training, or you can have voluntary training, but when you use the word 'voluntary' to qualify the word 'universal,' you are using a 'weasel word'; it has sucked all the meaning out of 'universal.' The two words flatly contradict one another." (The origin of that metaphor can be found in Shakespeare's As You Like It, when "the melancholy Jaques" asks Lord Amiens to continue his singing: "I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.")

Author Stewart Chaplin explained the phrase in an article about political platforms in a 1900 issue of The Century Magazine: "weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell. If you heft the egg afterward it's as light as a feather, and not very filling when you're hungry; but a basketful of them would make quite a show, and would bamboozle the unwary."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, "was extremely impatient with some of the drafts that came over from the State Department during those years, and with some of the suggested corrections in the drafts he had sent over to them for consideration. He felt that they were too apt to use 'weasel words' (a favored phrase he had borrowed from Theodore Roosevelt); that they made too many reservations and were too diplomatically reserved."

Editor William Allen White, writing about the direct quality of Wendell Willkie in 1940, thought the Republican candidate was making headway because "The American people are tired of the smoothy in politics—even if he is honest. They don't like the oleaginous weasel words with which so many politicians grease their way back when they venture upon a dangerous salient of honesty."

President Nixon, in a meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1972, first used the word in high-level international diplomacy (and presaged the use of cover-up in the same sentence): "The conventional way to handle a meeting at the summit like this, while the whole world is watching is to have meetings for several days, which we will have, to have discussions and discover differences, which we will do, and then put out a weasel-worded communique, covering up the problems." Nixon then disclaimed such intention.

The colloquial verb to weasel means "to renege on a promise," usually for some cowardly reason. In prison slang, it refers to an informer. The Wentworth-Flexner Dictionary of American Slang adds that "applied to small, thin males, the word retains its physical connotation." Why the weasel has acquired a cowardly reputation is not known; it is a bold, vicious little beast that kills more than it can eat. In snowy areas, it acquires a white coat and enters judicial metaphors as ermine.

President Eisenhower wrote to Ambassador to Italy Clare Boothe Luce in 1953: "I assure you first that, so far as I know, we have no intention of weaseling on our October 8th decision on Trieste." In that forthright statement, "so far as I know" are weasel words.

Excerpted from Safire's Political Dictionary published by Oxford University Press. © 2008 by Oxford University Press, Inc.