It’s political season in America.

You can’t turn on the television without hearing about a skeleton in someone’s closet or the most recent outlandish comment made by one candidate or another. But most likely you’ve heard anchors and reporters using political jargon too.

For example, after a candidate throws their hat in the ring they might make a stump speech, but even a dark horse candidate is hoping to make the current president a lame duck.

So what does all this crazy political jargon mean? And even more interesting, why do say it?

TRHatinRingWhen someone throws his hat in the ring it simply means he is willing to participate. During the 19th century, boxing became a huge fad in the United States. In large cities, unscrupulous entrepreneurs organized boxing matches in local pubs, gaming halls or social clubs with winners getting a share of the take. You literally threw your hat into the ring to challenge the fighter. Speculation may surround a person who is considering a run for political office, but when someone throws their hat in the ring, they have declared themself a candidate. It was Teddy Roosevelt, an avid sportsman, who first adapted this phrase to the political realm. When asked whether or not he would seek re-election in 1912 the president responded, “my hat’s in the ring, the fight’s on.”

If a candidate enters the race with little name recognition and or experience, he is often tagged a dark horse. This phrase can also be attributed to the sporting world. In horse racing, when an unknown horse entered the race and the odds makers didn’t know how to evaluate it, they referred to him as “dark” because he came out of the dark shadows to upset the odds. The phrase first appeared in The Young Duke (1831), “A dark horse, which  had never been thought of…rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.” In 1844, the expression was first used to refer to James Polk, an undistinguished politician from Tennessee who won the Democratic Party’s nomination over a slew of more prominent candidates on the ninth ballot at the party’s convention. He went on to become the eleventh president of the United States.

 Stump Speaking, Nineteenth Century Painting by George Caleb Bingham

Stump Speaking, Nineteenth Century Painting by George Caleb Bingham

While campaigning, candidates make stump speeches as they travel from town to town repeating a prepared text explaining their platform and what they hope to accomplish. Today the candidates usually speak from an elevated platform where they can be seen. But two hundred years ago, a candidate would literally stand on the stump of a felled tree to be seen while giving his speech and the phrase has stuck ever since. When candidates are “stumping”, they are traveling around the country speaking for or against an important piece of legislation or political issue.

If an incumbent candidate loses his or her election, he is considered a lame duck. Lame duck is a British phrase that means someone is disabled or ineffectual. Eventually it became slang on the British Stock Exchange to refer to someone who couldn’t be relied upon to pay their debts. Abraham Lincoln is credited with first applying the phrase to politics when he said a “senator or representative out of business is a sort of lame duck. The phrase has become part of the American political lexicon referring to an incumbent candidate who loses their election and has little power or influence. They limp out of office like a lame duck.

There’s no doubt that English can be confusing. Whether you support a dark horse candidate or hope your favorite won’t become a lame duck, it’s definitely fascinating to learn how popular expressions got their start and how their meaning has evolved over time.

What political jargon would you like to know more about?