Mark Twain once observed that Washington, D.C., was “the grand old benevolent asylum for the helpless.”

Whether or not you believe that’s true, American politics and politicians have been for generations a great source of new words, colorfully repurposed words and humorous words. We offer just a taste today.

Let’s start by looking at one man’s definition of “politics.” Independent Maine U.S. Sen. Angus King recently told this newspaper about the word’s Greek origins: “‘Poly,’ meaning ‘many,'” he said, “and ‘ticks,’ meaning ‘blood-sucking insects.'”

One of presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s favorite words got a brief moment back in the sun recently. In 2012, he had used the word “malarkey” during a vice-presidential debate. Fast forward to this year when the former veep revived the word for his “No Malarkey” campaign, which took him throughout Iowa in a bus with this plastered on the side:  “Ma·lar·key, noun: insincere or foolish talk.”

Malarkey is the kissing cousin of “gobbledygook,” a word coined by Texas Congressman Maury Maverick that is used to describe wordy, pompous prose that confuses and annoys more than it informs.

And what are you doing if your speeches are full of malarkey and gobbledygook? Why you’re bloviating, of course. A combination of “blow hard” and “deviate,” to bloviate means to talk at length in an inflated or empty way. It was a favorite word of President Warren G. Harding (and, ironically, one frequently used to describe his speeches).

Our final political highlight for the day is “gerrymander,” which means to change the boundaries of a political district in order to gain an advantage in an election, which is frowned upon. It is named after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry who in 1812 signed a bill that led to one electoral district being shaped roughly like a salamander.

A good recent example of attempted gerrymandering happened in Pennsylvania in 2018 when its newly drawn 7th District was nixed by a judge because it looked like “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.” (Even though Gerry’s surname is pronounced “garree” with a hard “G,” the correct pronunciation of gerrymander is “jerreemander.”)

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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