What’s With All Trump’s Talk About “Draining the Swamp”?
In a press release from Oct. 17, Trump pledged to “drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.” He then tweeted: “I will Make Our Government Honest Again — believe me. But first, I’m going to have to #DrainTheSwamp.” Since then, Trump and his supporters have punctuated tweet after tweet with the hashtag. What are they talking about?
Politicians have long colored calls to clean up government corruption with drain the swamp. In 2006, newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pledged to “drain the swamp” in Congress after 10 years of Republican control. After 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld committed to “drain the swamp” of terrorism; the phrase was a favorite of Bush administration officials during the ensuing wars they launched in the Middle East. Earlier, in 1983, President Reagan described his chief mission as “draining the swamp” of big government.
At its bottom, drain the swamp is a metaphor: If you drain the swamp, you eliminate the mosquitoes (or snakes and alligators, in other iterations) that breed disease. But, ironically, the original disease the expression referred to was the very thing Trump has built his campaign on: big business. Etymologist Barry Popik has traced drain the swamp back to the socialist movement of the early 20th century. In a 1903 letter to the Daily Northwestern, Winfield R. Gaylord, state organizer of the Social Democratic Party, precursor to Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America, wrote: “Socialists are not satisfied with killing a few of the mosquitoes which come from the capittalist [sic] swamp; they want to drain the swamp.” Another Wisconsin socialist, Victor Berger, provides a textbook example in 1912: “It cannot be avoided any more than malaria in a swampy country. And the [financial] speculators are the mosquitos. We should have to drain the swamp—change the capitalist system—if we want to get rid of those mosquitos.” The following year, labor and community organizer Mary “Mother Jones” Harris (and magazine namesake) deployed the phrase: “The capitalist and striker—both men are all right—only they are sick; they need a remedy; they have been mosquito bitten. Let’s kill the virulent mosquito and then find and drain the swamp in which he breeds.” The mosquitoes, for Harris, were the deeper, industrial forces that pit labor against bosses.
Drain the swamp isn’t just a vivid conceit with a revolutionary flair: It also alludes to the stubborn myth that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp, which, fatefully, had to be drained to accommodate the new seat of American democracy and power. As historians and scientists have noted, only a tiny fraction of the District, for all its humidity, was ever swampy enough to require any such drainage; the ecosystem is actually closer to a tidal marsh. (Manage the tidal marsh, while perhaps better characterizing the day-to-day slog of government work, doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Myth aside, drain the swamp has proved sticky over the course of the 20th century, used by Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, to condemn whatever particular malady they believe is plaguing our government.
But leave it to Trump to drag this mucky metaphor even further into the mud. For Trump’s swamp isn’t just home to political cronies and crooks, whom the expression typically targets: The media, polling, leaders of his own political party, the abstract Establishment, and just about anything that challenges his view of the world, and himself, gets sucked into his vortex. A pro-Trump political cartoonist, Ben Garrison, illustrated some of the swamp things Trumpism wants to cleanse, from CNN rats to bloodthirsty globalism:
Notice, though, the #MAGA-capped amphibian in Garrison’s cartoon. It’s Pepe, a cartoon frog appropriated as a symbol of white supremacy and much memed in support of Trump’s candidacy. And frogs, well, live in swamps—not to mention that you can’t drain a swamp like you empty a bath. You have to build special ditches and canals that redirect the water. But knowing that would require doing a little bit of homework.
In Honor of the GOP Nominee: What Exactly Is an Assclown?
Have those creepy clowns been terrorizing your neighborhood this autumn? Kick ‘em in the seat of their oversized, particolored pants with this choice insult: assclown. To be sure, I’m certain we can all conjure up some far stronger words for those evil motherfuckers, but let’s have a closer look at this jester gibe.
Profanity Censorship Is Arbitrary. Stop Doing It.
Ben Zimmer called the dissemination of Donald Trump’s recorded conversation with Billy Bush a “watershed moment in public profanity,” since major news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times presented Trump’s remarks without bowdlerization. Even Times subscribers who avoid the internet and cable news had to confront the words pussy and fuck on Page One, above the fold and before the jump, on their way to the Saturday crossword.
Let’s compare this with how the Times handled the death of Keith Scott two weeks earlier.
On the afternoon of Sept. 23, the Times website posted a video of Charlotte, North Carolina, police officers’ deadly confrontation with Scott, which his wife, Rakeyia, recorded on her cellphone.
The Strange and Searching Linguistic Experiments on Bon Iver’s 22, a Million
Bon Iver’s chart-topping new album, 22, a Million, is a dense, cryptic mashup. Musically, Justin Vernon qua Bon Iver overlays his earthy, aching melisma with processed, robotic-sounding samples. His lyrics leap from mundane acts of folding his clothes to religious images of folding his hands in prayer. The track titles are numerological riddles, the album artwork is marked with alienlike symbols, and yet its visceral core requires no decoding. These polyvocal textures tell of personal, relational, and spiritual breakdowns and reconfigurations—and, just as dramatically, linguistic ones, too.
22, a Million’s track titles are conspicuously strange. For instance, Track 1 is “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, Track 3 “715 - CRΣΣKS,” and Track 9 “____45_____.” Each reads like a line from a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem composed in The Matrix. The mélange of numbers, symbols, and typography suggest a relationship between signifier and signified that is unstable and slippery, as if to scramble what we can express with our words and the meaning we can access through them. As John Ashbery, whose poetry never rested in probing for a language to transcend the experience of individual consciousness, articulates this linguistic predicament in “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror”: There are “no words to say what it really is.” Vernon’s titles enact a breakdown of meaning, at once exposing a foreign code when our familiar letters have fallen away and hacking into our dull, ordinary language with an exotic cipher.
Why Do People Keep Talking and Joking About Humans?
If you have a favorite human, the latest in GIF technology now allows you to let him or her know it in no uncertain terms. The “YOU ARE MY FAVORITE HUMAN” GIF delivers an all-caps message that shimmers over a disembodied alien head in stars. Meanwhile, the Wonka expresses the same sentiment, but for candy-tycoon-weirdo fans. In the physical realm, there are “favorite human” cutoff tanktops; you can also purchase “favorite human” mugs, greeting cards, and onesies, some of which are accented with aliens, hearts, and space-traveling cats to give your feelings some pizzazz.
Such webanalia comprises just one new use of humans among us. Nowadays, referring to a person as a human in the singular and to people as humans is spreading in popularity and into various conversational realms. I don’t have the anthropological studies to verify this phenomenon, but the cool kids around me keep wielding human as a term of endearment, in the “favorite human” sense, and they’re also using it to mimic the perspective of their pets, as in, my sweet tabby Lorenzo thinks I’m his human.
Every person who has ever uttered bleep bloop has known the pleasure of imagining themselves as a robot. Part of the fun is thinking about humans as a foreign species, one lower and weaker than your own. Poor little human. So feeble, so bogged down with emotions and technical flaws. This is classic stuff—allusive to Isaac Asimov and Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and more—and referring to a human or humans in the second- and third-person is key to the game. But with artificial intelligence finally interacting with us in the form of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, robo-homo relations have crossed a new frontier.
The internet is probably inspiring more human use than any robot, though. Some people have grown fond of calling themselves or others human to acknowledge or scorn feelings of, well, inhumanity that can plague a life online. Get offline and be a human, the smugs chide. I finally went outside today, I had to feel like a human, honest people confess. I met someone in the meatspace Monday and remembered I am actually a human—OK, I made this one up. No one has met a human in the flesh in five years.
Life online is wondrous, but it can also feel cold, remote, and yes, alien. As the internet, smartphones, and A.I. have invaded more and more human hours and days, it’s only natural that we are using human to acknowledge and reckon with people as a species apart from this rapidly ubiquitous technology, and that we’re reaching for a word that emphasizes our physicality and biology. (It’s an instinct behind the trend toward natural, organic, handmade, artisanal everything, too.) The joke nods at our simultaneous familiarity with digital life—a new thing—and estrangement from what’s elemental, a very old thing. This astonishment at biology is funny; comedian John Hodgman uses it when he discusses his “human children.” I’m 30, people around me keep procreating, and some refer to their offspring as “human babies.” This always makes me laugh; it’s either acknowledging that this little baby is a bizarre creature that may as well be a robot or a monster or an alien, or it’s self-deprecating, hinting that we’re just normal folks living digital lives, and oh right, it’s the human baby that’s earthly and uncorrupted by technology. A human, how strange.
Inside Locker Rooms and Other Male Spaces
Locker rooms have gotten a bad rap lately; one half-expects a forthcoming tweet from Lockers.com distancing itself from Donald Trump’s comments and avowing its corporate respect for all women.
First, let’s dispense with what should be obvious to anyone positioned outside of a certain basket: Trump’s claims to Billy Bush, if true, constitute an admission of sexual assault; even if they were said in private, with the disclaimer of their being hyperbolic “locker-room talk,” the sentiments and language are inappropriate for a potential president who would have the world’s most powerful bully pulpit; they’re of a piece with Trump’s countless public denigrations of women, despite his protestations that campaigning has changed him; and the same widespread horror should have greeted his equally distasteful opinions of Mexicans, Muslims, black Americans, his political opponents, their wives, John McCain, etc.
What I suspect is most shocking to people isn’t Trump’s diction per se, but that his private self (or at least his performative private self) is not, in fact, a toned-down version of his stage persona. I long believed this, or hoped it was true; how else could he have survived in liberal-elite Manhattan social circles for so long?
When Did Baked In Become So Baked In?
In what precious little downtime they have this pell-mell campaign, the commentariat is apparently relieving stress in the kitchen, gearing up for holiday sweets, or bingeing on The Great British Bake Off.
Consider a few remarks from last month. On RedState, Jay Caruso observed, “The people showing up to rallies are baked in supporters. They are people who are going to vote for Trump, no questions asked.” Appearing on The PBS News Hour, David Brooks noted that Clinton’s “e-mail story and the other stories are sort of baked in the cake.” The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson’s concluded “the great majority of the electorate’s support appears baked in.” And as a political science graduate student explained to the Wall Street Journal: “Partisan political preferences are so thoroughly baked in that voters may be impossible to sway.” As just these few examples suggest, baked in seems, well, baked into our political analysis these days.
Baked in—an expression that rests on the idea that an ingredient baked into a cake is like a part inextricably incorporated into the whole—isn’t exactly new. Quote investigator Garson O’Toole traces it to Walter Wriston, former head of Citibank, who used it to characterize the inevitable consequences of late 1970s monetary policy: “It’s baked in the cake that we’re going to have a recession in 1980.” Since then, the finance community has taken up baked in to name “projections, expectations, and other news items … already taken into account” in the market, as Investopedia explains. Here’s a recent example from MarketWatch: “Twitter is a stock that is priced to perfection if you consider that an acquisition by Google, if it happens, is already baked in.”
How “Locker-Room” Became Synonymous With Dirty Talk
Donald Trump has slandered many people, places, and things during his presidential campaign. Last week, he added one more to the list: the locker room.
“This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago,” Trump said in a statement responding to the 2005 video in which he described the privileges a “star” like him can take with women. (“Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”) Under questioning at Sunday’s presidential debate, Trump quintupled down on the locker room: “I don’t think you understood what was—this was locker-room talk. … Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker-room talk. … I hate it. But it’s locker-room talk, and it’s one of those things. … It was locker-room talk, as I told you. That was locker-room talk.” On Wednesday, in a New York Times story that described Trump making unwanted sexual advances on two women, the candidate said it again. “I don’t do it. I don’t do it,” he said, referring to, in the Times’ words, “whether he had ever done any of the kissing or groping that he had described on the recording.” He added, “It was locker room talk.”
While athletes and nonathletes alike have noted that techniques for assaulting women are not in fact common locker-room conversation topics, there’s no denying the locker room is synonymous with off-color words and actions. Merriam-Webster defines the adjective locker-room as “of, relating to, or suitable for use in a locker room; especially : of a coarse or sexual nature.” The Oxford English Dictionary has a similar two-part definition, one that specifies which gender is likely to perpetrate locker-roominess: “Designating language, attitudes, or behaviour associated with or considered typical of a (men’s) locker room, esp. in being vulgar or coarse.”
Green’s Dictionary of Slang Comes Online
Love the internet or see it as the devil’s playground, there’s one thing for which it seems the dream home: reference. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, all those thick, square tomes of yesteryear, in my case the three volumes that made up the 2010 print edition of Green’s Dictionary of Slang are surely over. The mighty OED, halfway through its revision, would currently need 40 volumes. It’s not going to happen, any more than I or any publisher would consider an expanded print version of my own effort. The monster dictionaries might be good for propping up a misaligned table, but for information? We expect better and thanks to the web those of us who create reference databases can offer it.
When I signed on to write my dictionary in 1998, hard on the heels of its single-volume predecessor, I carefully inserted a clause in the contract: There will be an e-book. Back then no one quite knew what the term meant. For me it was everything that print couldn’t be: It was to be a website on which would be uploaded a facsimile not of the static hardback, but of my dynamic, constantly evolving research database. If I could ask for every word James Joyce uses for sex, Dickens for drunkenness, or Irvine Welsh for heroin, then so should everyone else. If I needed to see the first recorded use of a given term, then it should be openly available. All 1,740 words for sexual intercourse: no sweat. That was the plan.
Roger Angell’s Love of the Word Tatterdemalion Is Contagious
On the July 21, 2014, edition of Slate’s sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” Stefan Fatsis discussed the writer Roger Angell's affection for the word tatterdemalion. Last week, the 95-year-old Angell used the word again. An updated transcript of the recording is below, and you can listen to Fatsis’ original essay here.
In 2014, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote a glowing profile of the incomparable baseball writer—incomparable writer, really—Roger Angell, who was finally being honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame. Angell was 93 years old and, we learned, still showing up an hour or two a day at the New Yorker offices to peruse fiction submissions or write the occasional piece about baseball or aging or, let’s be blunt, death. His most recent effort—and with Angell they never seem like effort, but of course they’re Herculean, each and every one—was a brief eulogy for the bald, bowling ball-bellied baseball lifer Don Zimmer. It started thusly: “Don Zimmer, who died yesterday at eighty-three, was an original Met and an original sweetie pie. His sixty-six years in baseball were scripted by Disney and produced by Ken Burns.”