3 Common Phrases Made Popular by Presidential Elections

Every election cycle there are certain phrases that pop up time and time again either as slogans, talking points, or just general political banter.  In 2008, we had Joe the Plumber, vetting, and a whole slew of Palinisms, 2004 introduced the public to flip-flopping and swiftboating, and 2000 left us with hanging chads, red states and blue states.  However, it’s hard to say these neologisms and phrases without evoking some sort of political connotation.  However, there are at least 3 phrases we use today that we owe to campaigns, whether they meant it or not.

John Kerry Swiftboating

3. Throw Under the Bus

Nobody is quite sure where the phrase “to throw someone under the bus” came from or exactly what it originally referred to, but it exploded during the 2008 season.  One linguist found 400 examples in the press during 6 months of the campaign.  The phrase itself more or less means to make someone a scapegoat but I would hypothesize that it’s cultural resonance derives from its metaphor of a bus as an irrational, unstoppable, machine.  Its closest meaning may be that of “throwing someone to the wolves.”  Yet whereas the wolves are simply a group looking to attack someone, the bus is much more the nature of society in general.  Thus the snitching connotation of throwing someone under the bus is conveyed as exposing someone or betraying their trust.  The phrase was rather popular on the Howard Stern show where it took on the specific meaning of someone from the show staff telling Howard something previously told in confidence or exposing a mistake made by an employee.  It was mostly used to denote putting someone in the path of Stern’s wrath shtick.

2. Internets

At first I didn’t think this word belonged on the list because I had always associated it with the 2004 election, but eight years later it has apparently lost its original connotation.  The phrase is actually a Bushism, created out of thin air when he used it responding to a debate question from the audience.

Catchphrases, as the NPR link above mentions, spread in a viral fashion, often in the form of memes.  When “the internets” became a meme it began to evolve and shed its political connotation where it’s now just used as a hip way to say the internet.  With the flourishing of internet memes in the last decade, it is no surprise it caught on, especially given how well it fits with lolcats.  It also didn’t help when Ted Stevens later compared the internet to a “series of tubes.”

1. OK

OK, O.K., Okay, is now an internationally recognized and used word.  If you don’t know what it means then you probably can’t understand anything else I’ve written here.  This is another word where nobody really knows where it came from or if it stands for anything, yet one theory has been accepted more by etymologists.  That theory holds that OK was originally the product of an abbreviation fad in Boston where the phrase “all correct” was purposely mis-abbreviated as OK.  Allen Walker Reed proposed the theory and was able to trace its use in print to 1838.  The President at that time was Martin Van Buren, and in the election of 1840, his campaign used OK to refer to Van Buren as “Old Kinderhook,” a folksy nickname he had from his town.  With the slogan “Vote for OK,” the word was launched nationwide and Van Buren’s Whig opponents used it against him playing off its misspelling.  Van Buren ultimately lost his re-election to William Henry Harrison who was later impeached by God after just 32 days on the job.


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