When did we start referring to elections as "landslides"?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 3 2010 5:23 PM

When Did We Start Talking About "Landslide" Elections?

When people thought John Fremont was going to win the presidency in 1856.

People voting in the US mid-term elections. Click image to expand.
Voters swept Republicans into office around the country on Tuesday

The Republican landslide predicted by many pollsters materialized on Tuesday, as the GOP took control of the House of Representatives, narrowed the Democrats' advantage in the Senate, and took over several governorships. Indeed, the Weekly Standard and the Christian Science Monitor, both used the L-word in their headlines. When did people start referring to a lopsided election as a landslide?

In the mid-19th century. While plenty of American politicians suffered crushing defeats before then, no one appears to have compared their fates to being buried in an avalanche until The New York Post enthused over the prospects of John Fremont's campaign for president in 1856. Fremont would ultimately lose to James Buchanan, starting an early theme for would-be landsliders. * Horace Greeley was projected to defeat Ulysses S. Grant in a landslide in 1872. In 1876, a Pennsylvania state senator named Daniel Ermentrout urged the farmers and shop owners attending a meeting in Berks County to support Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden for president in the upcoming election. In the penultimate sentence of his grandiose speech, which was published in the Reading Eagle, Ermentrout described the country's turn away from the corruption of Ulysses S. Grant as "the great political landslide of the Centennial year." The article notes, "Senator Ermentrout was frequently interrupted by vociferous applause."

The metaphor still hadn't really caught on, though, possibly because Republican Rutherford B. Hayes squeaked out an incredibly narrow victory in what is widely regarded as the most corrupt presidential election in U.S. history. But the phrase was back in play eight years later. Carter Harrison, a candidate for governor of Illinois in 1884, assured a New York Times reporter that he and presidential candidate Grover Cleveland would carry the state in "a perfect landslide, in fact." In fact, they did not, although Cleveland at least won the presidency.

Despite the apparent inauspiciousness of the term, it was circulating more widely by the end of the decade. Newspapers in 1888 described several elections as potential landslides, although some used modifiers like veritable, or put landslide in quotation marks, suggesting it still wasn't exactly common usage. When Republicans in Illinois' Third Ward endorsed federal judge Walter Q. Gresham as their candidate for president at a meeting in 1888, a group called Colonel Knight's Glee Club debuted the song "There's a Landslide Coming, Boys," according to the Chicago Tribune. Gresham lost the nomination to Benjamin Harrison and left the party four years later.

The idea of a landslide election is used in a few places around the world, but it's not a universal metaphor. Swedes, for example, sweep beloved politicians into office in a jordskred. But our neighbors to the south did not describe Vicente Fox's strong showing in the 2000 presidential election as a derrumbe or a deslizamiento de tierra. They do, however, use the verb arrasar (to devastate) to describe one-sided contests. The same word describes the effects of a hurricane or tornado.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Elisabeth Malkin of the New York Times and Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Correction, Nov. 4, 2010:The original identified Sen. Ermentrout's 1876 speech as the original use of the word landslide in an electoral context. In fact, there are at least two prior examples, from the presidential elections of 1856 and 1872. (In all three cases, the word was used to predict a landslide political victory for a candidate who ended up losing.) The headline for the article has also been corrected in light of the new information. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Update, Nov. 5, 2010: For a more thorough explanation, see Slate contributor Ben Zimmer's article on the same topic from 2008.

Like  Slate  and the Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.