Review: Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century

As my regular readers know well, I tend to focus on the origins of everyday words that are timely, seasonal, or buzzing in the news. My selections, more often than not, come from politics—and, these days, it seems they’re almost exclusively from or about Trump. Not that I’m alone.

Take Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century (Lexik House, 2016), lexicographer David K. Barnhart’s second collection of such political terms and which he kindly sent me a copy for review. Barnhart may be a familiar name to my readers: His brother, Robert Barnhart, created The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, one of my go-to resources. (You wouldn’t want to play Scrabble at their house. Their father, Clarence, was an accomplished lexicographer, too, best known for editing the Thorndike-Barnhart graded dictionaries.)

In his Election-day Edition of his Never-finished Political Dictionary, Barnhart enters over 50 terms based on Trump alone: Trumpanzee (“a supporter of Donald J. Trump”), the Trump effect (“the influence of Donald J. Trump on a political race”), Trumpertantrum (think temper tantrum), Trumpian, Trumpism, Trumpista (“a person who enthusiastically supports the policies of Donald J. Trump”), Trump-tastic (“wonderful in a way that reflects Trumpian splendor”), and the list goes on. Clinton only reaches half that number, and Bernie-related terms don’t even crack a dozen. Politically—and linguistically—we are in the Trump era.

Still, there are many other entries that capture our political moment. Barnhart defines, accompanied by wide-raging citations and well-researched etymologies, such items as Aleppo moment, the alt-right, Brexit, Bridgegate, cuckservative, the Comey effect, gig economy, gotcha question, jihadi cool, manterrupt, protest tourist, slacktivism, truth squad, and WikiLeaks. Many of these, as is so often the case, will be remembered merely as artifacts, which I suspect is especially true for a host of neologisms disparaging or describing people’s political identification or viewpoints: blognut, condemocrat, Dumbocrat, gliberal, Libservative, libtard, moonbat, Republident, Rethuglican, Tea-Bagger, Teahadi, and wingnut. While these particular coinages will likely fade, they nonetheless point to some significant and ongoing trends: 1) political polarization and tribalism in the US and 2) the use of colorful compounding to label them.

Others items—including alt-right, which Barnhart notes is claimed to have been invented by white supremacist Richard Spencer as early as 2008, and lamestream, which, going back to 1995, is older than I realized—are proving their staying power, showing their utility outside of their precipitating or popularizing contexts. Kerry’s swiftboat, Romney’s self-deport, Obama’s red line, Hillary Clinton’s reset button, and Trump’s pivot are good examples, not to mention that they illustrate the role of metaphor to political language.

The Never-finished Political Dictionary brought a few other trends to my attention. The first centers on affixes. The suffix/libfix -gate (Biscuit-gate, Hug-gate) continues to demonstrate its widespread use for scandal while -care (Obamacare, Romneycare, Trumpcare) has taken off to identify healthcare plans. The prefix post- (post-bin Laden, post-Brexit, post-gender) is an active political epoch marker, and cyber- (cyberattack, cyberwarfare, cyberweapon), while otherwise outdated, has prevailed for computer-conducted political hostilities.

The second focuses on the number of phrases using a particular construction: [X name/proper noun] + effect, factor, fatigue, or rule. Here’s a sample: The Ferguson effect refers to the reported hesitance of the police to act out of fear of the civil unrest we witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri. The Kardashian factor has characterized the impact of social media influence, as Kim Kardashian enjoys. Barnhart glosses Bush-Clinton fatigue as the “rejection of Jeb Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton as candidates for President of the United States because of their family predecessors in that office.” And a Buffet rule is “any financial strategy of Warren E. Buffett.” The McCain effect, Obama factor, pink fatigue, and the Biden rule are a few other examples that further highlight the trend.

So, while Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary is an interesting linguistic time capsule of US politics circa 2000-10s, it’s also a telling indicator of some of the broader, and more perhaps more enduring, ways we’re using language in politics. And indeed, that’s a project—as Barnhart so aptly titles this engaging, incisive, and finely crafted dictionary, which will please word nerds, language writers, and wonks alike—is never finished.

Barnhart released his latest collection just this past this December, but I imagine he’s already quite busy keeping up with all the language Trump has given us not even half a year into his presidency. And I, for one, very much look forward to how Barnhart will handle it.

By David K. Barnhart
228pp. Lexik House. US $42.

m ∫ r ∫


One thought on “Review: Barnhart’s Never-finished Political Dictionary of the 21st Century

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s