“Showdowns” and “filibusters”: on the etymological floor of the US Senate

There is a partisan showdown in the US Senate. Democrats have the votes to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, preventing the cloture needed to take up his vote. Will Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as he seems poised to do, use the nuclear option?

Senate politics doesn’t just brim with conflict—it’s also teeming with colorful and unusual vocabulary. Let’s take these terms to the etymological floor. 

Continue reading ““Showdowns” and “filibusters”: on the etymological floor of the US Senate”

6 political expressions that come from sports and gaming

In the run-up to tonight’s high-stakes showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, some polls are showing that the two candidates are locked in a virtual dead heat. And as the two are set to square off, many want the media to raise the bar of expectations for Trump. The language of politics is no stranger to sports metaphors, but it’s easy to forget that these six terms, near clichés at this point in the campaign, started out as sporting or gaming expressions:

Now that’ll win a high-stakes showdown. “Poker hand,” by Steve Gray, courtesy of freeimages.com.

1. Run-up

The original run-up took place in greyhound racing, specifically coursing, where the dogs chase hares. The portion of the race up to the first “turn” or “wrench” of the hare, technical terms in the sport, was called the run-up. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this in 1834. Runner-up is also a racing term, referring since the 1840s to a dog that came in second place in the final course of a race. Runner-up was soon after extended to other competitions.

2. High-stakes

Since at least the 1920s, the adjective high-stakes concerned gambling, especially a poker game with stakes that were high, or “large.” This use of high dates backs to the 1600s, and characterized gambling stakes (e.g., the stakes were high) since the 1700s. The origin of stake, as something wagered, is unknown, though many have tried to root it in a stake, a “post” on which bettors placed their wager in the form of clothing, jewelry, or the like.

3. Showdown

Showdown took its etymological seat at the poker table in the 1890s: when players show their cards, after all the betting is over, by laying them down face up to see who has the best hand. This showdown became a metaphor for other confrontations by the early 1900s.

4. Dead heat

When horses cross the finish line at the exact same time, often after running neck and neck, they end in a dead heat. Horse racing has been using this term since 1796, according to the OED’s records. Dead, here, is “absolute” or “downright,” a sense reaching back the 1600s and owing to the utter finality of death. A heat is a single race, also dating to the 1600s and presumably named for the burst of exertion therein involved. 

5. Square off

Boxers square off when they take their fighting stances. The OED attests this American usage in 1838. Slightly earlier variants include square at, square up, or simply square. In such a posture, the limbs assume the rough outline of a square, a word which has also described a “strong” or “solid” body since the 1400s.

6. Raise the bar

In the high jump, athletes compete to clear ever higher levels of a horizontal bar. This bar, used in reference to the sport since the mid 1800s, could be raised or lowered, which became an effective metaphor for setting different levels of expectations by the 1970s.

m ∫ r ∫

What is the “jack” in “jackpot”?

Most people – normal folks, I imagine – are excited by the size of the Powerball jackpot: It has reached a record $1.5 billion at the time I write this. (I’ve already had to revise it up from $1.4 billion since I began this post.)

But nerd that I am, I am wowed by the word jackpot. To me, its etymology holds the real prize. (But, you know, if you gave me any winning numbers, I probably wouldn’t turn them down or anything.)

You don’t know jack. “Jackpot.” Doodle by me.


As you probably guessed, jackpot is a simple compound, joining jack and pot. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites jackpot in an 1881 edition of the Harvard Lampoon. Originally, this jackpot was won not in lottery games but in poker, specifically a version of draw poker known as Jack Pots.

In Jack Pots, players cannot open the betting unless they have a pair of jacks or better. If no one opens, players get a new hand and re-ante, which can accumulate into some large prizes. Hence the figurative jackpots in slots and lottos.

The jack in jackpot, then, refers to the card. This jack, if we again look to the OED, has long named the rank. The dictionary cites jack as “the knave of trumps in the game of all-fours” as early as the 1670s. Among other meanings, a knave was once “a male servant,” “commoner,” or “peasant.” (Apparentlyjack eventually trumped knave following confusion between the abbreviation for knave, Kn, and king, K.)

As for pot? Once more according to the OED, a pot has been used in gambling slang for “a large sum of money” so staked or bet since 1823, for “the betting pool” in U.S. cards, especially poker, since 1847.

Now, I spent a lot of time playing Euchre over lunch in high school (and drinks in college). In this game, jacks are top trump and called bowers. The jack of the trump suit is the right bower, the jack of the same color the left bower. I always thought of these bowers in the castle sense, the left and right hazily evoking some sort of turret, I foolishly supposed. But no, this bower is actually from the German Bauer, which is a “farmer” or “peasant” – as we saw, a knave in English, or a jack, as Jack was once a name commonly associated with peasants.

Now that’s what I call hitting the etymological jackpot.

m ∫ r ∫