Nancy Pelosi Told House Democrats to "Embrace the Suck." Where Did That Phrase Come From?

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Dec. 13 2013 10:51 AM

Nancy Pelosi Told House Democrats to "Embrace the Suck." Where Did That Phrase Come From?

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Welcome to the suck.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a closed-door meeting yesterday morning, Nancy Pelosi used some colorful language to cajole her fellow House Democrats into accepting the compromise budget deal. As first reported by Politico, she told them to "embrace the suck." Later in the day, CNN's Jake Tapper questioned Pelosi about her choice of words, asking, "Where did you get that from?"* Pelosi explained:

Where it came from, and I was impressed when I heard it, was from Patrick Murphy, a former Congressman. He was telling us one time about what it was like to be in Iraq—he was the head of a unit in Iraq and he said, 'You'll be there, you have like a 30-40lb package you had to carry around all the time, it was 130 degrees, you couldn't take a shower for a month—it was awful. So what we decided was that our approach would be to … [makes Tapper say it] ... then you roll with it, right? That is what I was saying to them, I was using Patrick’s story about how they coped there to say I understand every concern.

Pelosi refused to repeat the phrase, despite Tapper's best efforts, adding, "I think it really captured the moment, wouldn't you think?"

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"The suck" as a descriptor of the quotidian horrors of warfare goes all the way back to the Vietnam era. In a 1979 essay entitled "A Questioning Spirit: GIs Against the War" (included in the leftie anthology They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee), Steve Rees recalled his experiences working on the underground GI newspaper Up Against the Bulkhead, which began publishing in 1970. Though produced in San Francisco, many copies of the newspaper ended up in Vietnam. "With that many papers in circulation, we were a natural attraction for dozens of pen-pal-hungry guys sweating out their time in the jungles and engine rooms of what they liked to call 'the suck,'" Rees wrote.

A more common—but less printable—expression for the Vietnam wartime experience was "the shit": facing combat (as anyone who's seen Full Metal Jacket or Rushmore knows) was known as "being in the shit." "Suck," on the other hand, was on the rise among those sent off to fight primarily as a verb to signal coarse disapproval. Graffiti scrawled on the canvas bunk bottoms of troop transport ships shows ample evidence for both transitive "suck" ("the Army sucks dick") and the less vulgar intransitive ("the Army sucks"). But as a pejorative noun, "suck" had yet to achieve much prominence.

That changed by the time of the first Gulf War in the early '90s. Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead links "the suck" to the Marine Corps serving in the Gulf. From his fellow Marines, Swofford heard "manifestos against the Corps—the Suck, as they called it, 'because it sucks dicks to be in it and it sucks the life out of you.'" When Jarhead was made into a movie in 2005, posters featured the tagline "Welcome to the suck."

But when did military types start talking about embracing the suck? Capt. Benjamin Tupper, who contibuted to Slate's military blog The Sandbox, remembers first hearing "embrace the suck" in 2001, soon after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. "The spirits of the American infantrymen were undeterred," Tupper wrote in his book Greetings from Afghanistan. "Their Zen-like approach was to 'embrace the suck,' a strategy of treating the hardships as friends, not enemies, and driving on."

Two years later, at the start of the Iraq War, "embrace the suck" came into its own as a soldier's maxim. In a Mar. 26, 2003 New York Times article, Jim Dwyer quoted "a piece of military wisdom" from Sgt. Michael E. Murray of the 101st Airborne Division: ''You've got to embrace the suck.'' The Washington Post had their own embed in the 101st Airborne and reported, "The 101st motto—'Air assault!'—has been supplemented by the credo of central Iraq: 'Embrace the suck.'"

Thus, when Iraq War veteran Austin Bay compiled a handbook of military jargon in 2007, it was only natural for him to call it Embrace the Suck. "'Embrace the suck' isn't merely a wisecrack," Bay explained. "It's a raw epigram based on encyclopedic experience. Face it, soldier. I've been there. This ain't easy. Now let's deal with it."

Interestingly enough, "embrace the suck" appeared online even before the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in a completely non-military context. In September 2000, in a Usenet newsgroup devoted to "filk" (a folk-music genre with science-fiction and fantasy themes), a Singaporean enthusiast named Terence Chua posted MP3s of songs he had performed at the World Science Fiction Convention. "Yes, there were chord flubs. Yes, I was nervous. Embrace the spontaneity. Embrace the suck," Chua wrote, adding, "That's my new motto. 'Embrace The Suck.' Catchy, no?"

I emailed Chua to ask if his catchy motto was inspired by military usage. "I wasn't riffing off anything I had heard of or read," he told me. "It just seemed a logical progression from 'embrace the spontaneity' to 'embrace the suck,' so that's how it came out."

But this case of independent invention, in a geeky Internet forum far removed from wartime hardship, should not be so surprising. While soldiers have been coming to grips with "the suck," digerati have put their own more innocuous spin on the phrase. As I observed on Language Log a couple of years ago, "the suck" has gained currency in online circles, sometimes appearing intentionally misspelled as "teh suck" (according to the peculiar conventions of leetspeak).

In the comfortable confines of the tech world, "the suck" can refer to generally displeasing qualities of suckiness. In 2010, Erika Hall of Mule Design launched her website Unsuck It, which translates odious corporate jargon into plain English. In an interview at the time, she said, "We want to take the suck out of the way people are doing things." For civilians out of harm's way who have the freedom to avoid the suck, there's no need to embrace it—except, perhaps, in sucky Congressional negotiations.

*Correction, Dec. 13, 2013: This post originally misstated that Rep. Pelosi did not reveal how she came upon the phrase. But as her New Media Director Tanya Somanader pointed out to us, she indeed did. The post has been revised to reflect the new information.

Ben Zimmer is the executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

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