The Current And Confusing Language Of Politics

Political jargon

Do you ever listen to or read the news and wonder what the politicians, reporters, analysts, spokespeople, commentators are talking about? We have. That’s because they speak in a quick, coded way with shared catchphrases.

Don’t stress, we’re here to help by providing an insider’s guide to political jargon. Because politics are scary enough.

Dog-whistle politics

Dog-whistle politics signifies a message sent to a particular group of people, using words and phrases commonly understood by them . . . but not by others. The term comes from a dog whistle, which emits a high-frequency sound heard by dogs but not by humans. You’ll hear this phrase from people who are commenting on coded speech (not by the people who are actually sending the coded message).

Often, a dog whistle is a racist remark. In 2007, for example, Slate’s David Greenberg wrote that “states’ rights,” which literally refers to the powers of individual US state governments, is really code for institutionalized segregation and racism. Time to blow the real whistle.

Politics ends at the water’s edge

The phrase politics ends at the water’s edge means that when it comes to foreign affairs, the US is united and bipartisan. It discourages lawmakers who are traveling overseas from making comments that criticize the president or from sending mixed messages about his foreign policy.

The phrase was coined in 1947 by Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, then the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, as he urged bipartisanship with President Harry Truman, a democrat, in support for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO.

In 2017, this phrase took an interesting turn. Within the Trump administration, there seems to be some discord regarding foreign policy among the president, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Fourteen words

Fourteen words, or just 14, is a slogan coined by David Lane and used by white nationalists and white supremacists. Saying “14” is code for “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” But, mainly it’s code for racism, even in countries where the translated version of the slogan comes to fewer or greater than 14 actual words.

In July 2017, Sarah Palin caught heat for tweeting “Trump Gives Speech to the People of Poland, Says 14 Words That Leave Americans Stunned.” Palin’s tweet was considered a coded message to young conservatives who would understand that she was promoting neo-Nazism. And, that promotion may have led to some of the disturbing rallies that took place in 2017.

Empty barrel

The idiom empty barrel refers to a person who exhibits bluster and puts forth loud, uninformed opinions to get attention. The term may have originated with Plato who wrote: “An empty vessel makes the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest babblers.”

In October 2017, at a White House press briefing, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said “empty barrels make the most noise,” while criticizing something Representative Frederica Wilson said at a 2015 dedication event. A video of the event showed that his recollection of her comments was not accurate. Read on to see the reaction.

All hat, no cattle

The idiom all hat, no cattle is a Texas expression that describes a person who is all talk and no substance.

In October 2017, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used the expression to clarify General Kelly’s “empty barrel” remark. Sanders suggested that other statements by Representative Frederica Wilson were “grandstanding.” She then said: “If you don’t understand that reference [empty barrels make the most noise], I’ll put it a little more simply; as we say in the South, ‘all hat, no cattle.’”

Nattering nabobs of negativism

We love the alliteration of this term made famous by Vice President Spiro Agnew to refer to the members of the media with whom he had a very acrimonious relationship. At the 1968 Republican National Convention, he said: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of nattering nabobs of negativism. They have formed their own 4-H club—the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

Natter means “to talk casually about unimportant matters.” Oddly, a nabob is “a person who became wealthy in a foreign country, particularly India.”

President Trump’s ongoing war with the mainstream media has resurrected this goofy phrase. In 2017, the Boston Globe referenced the phrase, and several political bloggers have criticized BuzzFeed and Vox for harboring too many nattering nabobs of negativism, as well.

Starve the beast

The phrase starve the beast, coined by fiscal conservatives, is a popular metaphor for using tax cuts to limit government spending. The beast is the US federal government and the social programs it funds.

Critics of the 2017 tax cuts, which will increase the deficit, say starving the beast is the ultimate plan of the Republican party. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, said Republicans will aim next year to reduce spending on both federal health care and anti-poverty programs, citing the need to reduce America’s deficit.

Witch hunt

In political jargon, a witch hunt isn’t about searching for people accused of witchcraft. It means searching out and deliberately harassing political opponents. McCarthyism, the practice of accusing people of treason without evidence, was considered a witch hunt.

These days, President Trump frequently tweets that a federal probe into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election—and any potential ties with Russia to his presidential campaign—is a political witch hunt.


Gerrymandering sounds like a dance, but it refers to the practice of changing boundaries in voting districts to benefit a political party.

The term is a portmanteau of salamander and the last name of Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts who, in 1812, signed into law a redistricting plan designed to benefit his political party. Why salamander? A cartoon of the newly-formed district, which resembled the shape of a salamander, was published along with the term in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812.

Gerrymandering explains why President Trump won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote. It’s been a topic of contention, for sure. But, to help solve it President Obama and former attorney general Eric Holder launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and the organization’s goal, in partnership with Organizing for Action, is to “restore fairness to our electoral maps.”

Drain the swamp

In political jargon, drain the swamp is a metaphor for getting rid of something most people hate, such as corruption or government waste.

The term originally referred to eradicating malaria-carrying mosquitos by removing water from marshes where they tend to breed. The nation’s capital was built on a literal swamp, so the political version of the phrase is used by outsiders who promise to come to Washington and clean up the mess. President Ronald Reagan popularized the term in 1983, and it became a rallying cry for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Alternative facts

Alternative facts is the newest phrase to be included in political jargon. It was coined in January 2017 by Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to President Trump, during an interview on Meet the Press. Conway explained that alternative facts aren’t lies, but different ways to frame the same information: “Two plus two is four. Three plus one is four. Partly cloudy, partly sunny. Glass half full, glass half empty. Those are alternative facts.”

No surprise, many others disagree with the definition, calling it a misuse of words.


A filibuster is a political procedure used when either Republicans or Democrats don’t like what the other party is doing. To stop it, they take steps to delay legislative action. The term filibuster comes from the Dutch word vrijbuiter meaning “pirate.” It became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.

In March 2017, the Democrats threatened to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. In April 2017, the Republicans changed the Senate rules to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees, averting a filibuster. Sneaky, sneaky.

Elastic state

Politicians pay special attention to elastic states, a term coined in 2012 by Nate Silver in his FiveThirtyEight column. Silver thought it was necessary to describe this concept: states that have a lot of swing voters— people who could vote for either party’s candidate. A swing voter is very likely to be an independent voter, according to Silver.

The term comes from a similar concept in economics. An elastic good is one for which demand is highly sensitive to changes in prices. In 2016, swing voters were the primary target of the presidential campaigns. It seems they will become only more and more important in future elections as shifts in core public ideas keep occuring.

Turkey farm

It’s payback time once presidents are elected. To thank campaign staff members, big donors, and other supporters, government agencies and departments are staffed with political appointments. Often, these people do not have the qualifications required for the jobs.

In 1992, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency was unprepared for the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, a federal report noted the agency “is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, ‘a turkey farm’ . . . where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment.”

Today, President Trump appointed many of his friends and family members into positions of power that they weren’t fully qualified for. Gobble, gobble.


Astrotweeting is the creation of fake Twitter profiles to support a political candidate. Political operatives set up fake accounts to spread rumors or false statements about candidates. Russia’s creation of fake social-media accounts seems to be the biggest form of astrotweeting these days.

The term was coined in 2011 by Rick Hasen and Ben Smith. It comes from astroturfing, an artificially-manufactured political movement designed to give the appearance of grassroots activism.


In politics, the House Majority Whip (or Chief Whip if you prefer the British version) must ensure that members of his party show up to vote on important matters. As an extension of this, the whip has to know the happenings of his party members’ lives and how to find them (and discipline them if needed).

Whip is a shortening of whipper-in, which British speakers first used in the 1730s to refer to a huntsman’s assistant. The whipper-in’s job involved keeping dogs in order during a fox hunt with—as you might have already guessed—a whip. This term made the transition into politics about 40 years later to describe someone who essentially keeps party members in line.

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Word of the Day

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Can you guess the definition?

Word of the day

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