Why do we “clinch” a nomination?

And then there was one. Ted Cruz and John Kasich have ended their presidential campaigns after Donald Trump trounced them in the Indiana primary. Just over 200 delegates shy of securing it outright, Trump has virtually clinched the Republican party’s nomination for president. But why do we say that: to clinch a nomination?

A clinched nail. Image used with permission from The English Woodworker


Outside of political contests, we often use clinch in sports. Leicester City, for example, recently clinched the Premier League championship. Stateside, a team clinches a spot in the playoffs. In these contexts, clinch means “to make certain.” But as early as the 16th century, we didn’t clinch wins: we clinched nails.

After hammering a nail through a plank, a worker bends back the point to fasten it securely in the wood. This is called clinching, and lends itself easily to metaphor. By the early 1700s, the Oxford English Dictionary evidences clinch as a way to express “to settle decisively” – to wrap it up, drive it home, firm and final, like a clinched nail.

After exchanging blows, boxers clinch when they grapple up close, clasping their gloves. This pugilistic clinch is in use by the mid-1800s. We once clinched our hands and fingers, too, but today, we largely say we clench our fists (and teeth, jaws, and butts). Clinch, word historians note, is actually a variant of this clench. The latter probably evolved out of cling, which is found in Old English; you can see how cling’s sense of “adherence” anticipates the “interlocking” clench. Together, this cluster of clinch, clench, and cling ultimately derive from a Germanic base, with cognates widespread in the language family.

Except for builders, we don’t really associate clinch with nails today. But Donald Trump’s all-but-guaranteed clinching of the nomination does evoke nails for many in the Republican party: Will Donald Trump, #NeverTrump-ers fear, clinch the nails into the coffin of the GOP as we know it?

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What is the “vice” in “vice president”?

In what many are calling a last-ditch effort to shake up the campaign, this week Ted Cruz announced former Republican presidential candidate and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential nominee should he win his party’s nomination.

For many, Cruz’s pick is raising lots of questions, given that it’s now mathematically impossible for him to win the nomination outright. But there’s one big question whose answer I’d really like to know: What is the vice in vice president?

The many virtues of vice   

We often poke fun of the second-place office, but the vice presidency is an important one: It’s a heartbeat away from the presidency, as candidates consider when vetting their running mates.

The etymology of the title bears out the importance of the vice presidency: in Latin, vice means “in place of” or “in succession to.” For example, when the president sends the second-in-command to an important state function, the vice president is standing in place of – representing – the president at the event.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites vice-president in 1574, when “Sergius the Vice-president of Asia” must have really balanced out the ticket. This vice- technically functions as a prefix; the U.S. Constitution’s use of Vice President may obscure vice’s original grammatical role. The abbreviation V.P. is cited by 1887, the colloquial veep by 1949.

A screenshot of the first appearance of “Vice President” in the U.S. Constitution, in Article I, Section 3.

The earliest vice the OED finds is vice-collector, which it dates to 1497. (And you thought substitute teachers had it bad. Good thing we don’t call them “vice-teachers.”) The prefix proliferated in the 17th and 18th centuries, titling the likes of vice-apostle, vice-butler, vice-Christ, vice-husband, and vice-viceroy. A vice-viceroy was an official serving in place of the viceroy, who served in place of the monarch (French roi, “king”) in a colony, for instance. Old French at one point rendered Latin’s vice as vis-, which survives in English’s phonetically challenging viscount.

Latin’s vice is a form (the ablative case) of the noun vicis, which meant a “change,” “turn,” “succession,” or “place,” hence vice’s “in place of.” The word also appears in the adverbial phrase vice versa, a construction (the ablative absolute) literally meaning “the place having been turned.”

A vicar originally served in place of a parish priest. Parents live vicariously through their children’s endeavors. The vicissitudes of life are its constant and unpredictable changes. All of these words feature, at root, Latin’s vicis.

After Cruz made news with his pick for Number Two, many, like former Speaker John Boehner, have attacked Cruz’ vices. Others, meanwhile, think Carly Fiorina will bring out Trump’s own vices – and viciously bring it to the frontrunner. This vice, and its adjective, vicious, are not related. The root is Latin’s vitium, a “fault,” “defect,” or “offense,” source of the verb vitiate.

Changing vice’s ways

Vicis has some notable Germanic cousins. They demonstrate quite the change, for English owes both week and weak to a common, Indo-European ancestor shared with vicis.

Week is from Old English’s wiecan, whose various Germanic cognates meaning “office” and “function” may point back to some sort of ritual “changing over” of duties after the period of a week. The seven-day week is found in ancient Mesopotamian cultures, though its modern iteration is owed to Jewish tradition; some think of the Sabbath as marking the “turning” period in the week.

Old English had wác, which corresponded to the Old Norse form that eventually yielded weak, going strong in spite of meaning “having deficient strength” since the 1300s. One of the early usages of weak actually meant “bending,” due to lack of strength. Indo-European linguists propose a Proto-Indo-European root of *weik-, meaning “bend.” (The cognate wicker preserves this sense in its bent benches.) Something that bends is not sturdy, stiff, or strong. When you bend something, you change it.

Cruz’s vice presidential announcement may ultimately signal the weakness of his presidential prospects now, but one thing is for sure: the senator certainly doesn’t seem to be bending before the Republican convention this summer, as he wants no one in place of him in the Oval Office.

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What is the “hench” in “henchman”?

The 2016 presidential campaign yet again proves to be quite the horserace, if etymology has its say.

After an anti-Trump super PAC made use of a nude photo of Trump’s wife, Melania, in a political ad during last week’s Utah caucuses, Donald Trump threatened he would “spill the beans” on fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz’s wife. As lexicographer Ben Zimmer recently explained, the expression spill the beans actually originates in U.S. horse-racing.

Then, the pro-Trump National Enquirer accused Cruz of extramarital affairs. Cruz responded by pinning the “garbage” allegations on “Donald Trump and his henchmen.”

Today, as we see Cruz imply, a henchman – or henchperson, as language writer Stan Carey has observeddoes his boss’s dirty work. But historically, a henchman may have gotten their hands dirty with a very different kind of business. See, the best we can tell, the hench in henchman is all about horses.

Should we call them “henches”?  Image from www.freeimages.com/photographer/speluzzi-33102.

From groom to goon 

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites henchman in 1360, when, taking the Medieval Latin form of hengestmannus, the word appeared in official financial records during Edward III’s reign. Then, a henchman named a kind of “squire” or “page” who attended on a royal or noble figure on foot – or, more important to the origin of the word, horseback – during a procession. (The two henchmen noted in the OED’s earliest accounts were apparently named “Mustard” and “Garlic.”)

Henchman, then, probably began an ordinary “groom” but later rose in rank, a social mobility that the words constable, marshal, and groom itself also enjoyed.

Henchman appears to join man to hengest, an Old English word that named a “horse,” “stallion,” or “gelding.” For the compound, philologist Walter Skeat identifies relatives in the Icelandic hestvörðr (“horse-ward) and Swedish hingstridare (“horse-rider”). Hengest  itself has widespread Germanic cognates, which some Indo-European scholars reconstruct in the Proto-Germanic *hangistaz, “best at springing,” rooted in a Proto-Indo-European base for “to spring.”

But right after 1200, hengest flees the written record except as an element in various proper names associated with Hengist, the alleged war-name of the Jutish conqueror of Kent in the 5th century. And, while Skeat cites Nordic kin, the OED notes no compound counterpart for henchman in other Germanic languages.

The origin of henchman does some raise questions, even if we have a good hunch about it.

In the late 14th-century, Henry IV, then the Earl of Derby, added henchmen (henksman and hensman in the historic documentation) to his retinue on an important expedition. English royalty thereafter variously enlisted henchmen for royal service until Queen Elizabeth abolished them in 1565. Henchman itself flees English after the 1650s until Sir Walter Scott (re)popularized the word.

Editing Edmund Burt’s 1754 Letters in the North of Scotland, Scott encountered hanchman, which Burt describes as a personal attendant “at the Haunch” of a Highland chief, a kind of  gillie. At that time, Scottish pronounced hanchman something like henchman, which spelling Scott used when he employed the word in his Lady of the Lake for a “follower.”

So, as the OED wonders, did Burt just coin hanchman or actually revive the obsolete term? As philologist Ernest Weekly offers, “There may be no real connection to the [Modern English] word.”

After Scott, henchman spread into politics. The OED cites it as a “stout political supporter” by 1839, noting it started showing the “unscrupulous” (if not outright “nefarious”) character Ted Cruz conveyed in American English by the end of the 19th century.

Does hench the henchman ultimately come from the, er, horse‘s mouth? Possibly, but it’s not crystal clear. Just like the outcome of the presidential race: Will all these spilled beans and henchmen open up a lane for another political term rooted in horse-racing, the dark horse candidate? John Kasich seems to be betting on it.

For more on horse-y etymologies, see my posts on horse and derby.

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