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Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:  @farooqkperogi America exports its linguistic inventions, for the most part, through the scarcely ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

America exports its linguistic inventions, for the most part, through the scarcely perceptible but nonetheless potent osmotic pressure of its omnipresent pop culture—music, movies, media, etc. But with the progressive collapse of temporal and geographic boundaries that the Internet has enabled, America’s presidential politics is also helping to bring global attention to many peculiarly American expressions. 

If you’ve been following this year’s American presidential elections through the American news media and aren’t very familiar with American English, you’re probably puzzled by the expressions I outline below:

1.  “Double down on trickle down.” This quintessentially American English expression was popularized by former President Bill Clinton during his well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention on September 5 this year. In making the case for why Mitt Romney, the Republican Party candidate, must not be given a chance, Clinton said, “We cannot afford to double down on trickle down.” After Clinton’s speech, the search for “double down on trickle down” spiked on search engines. I imagine that most of the searches were from outside America. So what does the expression mean?

 Well, it’s a creative, rhythmic, distinctly Clintonian collocation of two peculiar Americanisms: “double down” and “trickle down.” “Double down” is originally a gambling terminology, which has been extended metaphorically in everyday American English to mean “significantly increase a risk, investment, or other commitment.” So to double-down on anything is to do it even more than you previously did. When you “double down” on a remark, for instance, it means you have restated it more forcefully.

 “Trickle down” (also called “trickle-down economics”), on the other hand, is the idea that all that a society needs to do to prosper is to first take care of its wealthy people who, because they are comfortable, will be in a position to take care of the less fortunate around them. That was why former president George W. Bush gave enormous tax breaks to the rich during his two terms as president. It was expected that once the wealthy made enormous profits, they would invest their money in the economy and provide jobs for people. Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens. The American economy collapsed in spite of (some would say because of) President Bush’s mollycoddling of the rich. 

So when Clinton said, “we cannot afford to double down on trickle down,” he was basically saying: with Romney as president, we would be increasing the risk of going ahead with a flawed economic philosophy that says we should ignore the poor, concentrate on the rich, and hope that the rich would take care of the poor once the rich are comfortable.

 Note that the term “trickle-down” or “trickle-down economics” is a pejorative term invented by the American left to ridicule the economic policies of Republicans. Mitt Romney has also invented the term “trickle-down government” to ridicule Democrats. It means growing the government (to the point of bankruptcy) so that it can take care of its citizens. For many non-Americans, that isn’t a persuasive criticism. While wealthy individuals have no sacred social contract to cater for the poor, the government does.

2. “Takes some brass to…” In the same Democratic National Convention speech, Bill Clinton defended Obama against attacks by Republican Party vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in these words: “When Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as ‘the biggest, coldest power play,’ I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Key cuts that $716 billion is exactly to the dollar the same amount of Medicare savings that he had in his own budget. It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.” 

 Immediately after the speech, I got a couple inquiries from my readers on Facebook asking to know what Clinton meant by “it takes some brass.” Brass means shameless boldness, impudence, nerve, chutzpah, etc. E.g. “He stole my property and when I caught him, he had the brass to ask me to apologize for calling him a thief.”

3. “Sugar high.” When a Mitt Romney political strategist called Neil Newhouse was asked to comment on Obama’s significant edge over Romney in the polls (which the American media like to call a “bounce in the polls”) in the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention, he said it was merely a consequence of “voters [feeling] a bit of a sugar high from the conventions.”
“Sugar high” is an Americanism typically used to describe the hyperactivity that children develop after drinking too much soft drink or after eating too many sugary things. Parents say when such hyperactive children play hard and “burn some energy,” the sugar high often dissipates. When applied to politics and other contexts, sugar high means ephemeral, fleeting enthusiasm. Supposedly, the “real,” lasting high comes from drinking alcohol and/or taking drugs. In other words, the real high in politics is the energy and fervor that come from winning elections, not from evanescent “bounces” in the opinion polls.

4. “Like An Etch A Sketch.” This is another metaphorical extension from children’s activity. When Mitt Romney’s adviser, known as Eric Fehrnstrom, was asked how his boss would face moderate voters in the general election in light of the extremist right-wing positions he took during the Republican primary election because of his desire to appeal to the Republican base, he said, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.” 

An Etch-a-sketch is a children’s learning toy with a built-in erasing system that allows users to rub out what they scribbled on the screen of the toy with the touch of a knob. The adviser basically implied that Romney would repudiate all the extremist views he espoused during the Republican primaries and lie his way to the presidency. And that is precisely what he is doing now. Because of this remark, critics now call Romney an “Etch-a-sketcher.”

5. “Flip flopper.” In American English, to flip-flop is to continually change one’s decisions back and forth, and one who flip-flops is a “flip flopper.” As the “etch-a-sketch” comment above shows, Romney is often labeled a “flip flopper” by Democrats—and by some Republicans. 
In other contexts, flip flop is the name Americans use for what we call “(bathroom) slippers” in Nigerian English. Among its several other meanings, a flip-flop can also mean a “backward somersault.” My guess is that the sense of mercurial change of positions associated with “flip flopping” in American politics and in conversational American English is derived from the metaphorical extension of a backward somersault.

6. “Zingers.” In American informal (mostly media) English, a zinger is a sharp, aggressive, or intentionally amusing, and headline-worthy remark directed at an opponent, especially during a debate or a speech. During the first presidential debate, for instance, many Obama supporters were disappointed that he didn’t throw any “zingers” at Romney. In the second debate, however, the media said Obama and Romney threw many “zingers” at each other. 

To be continued next week

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