Why do we call a politician's verbal delaying tactics a filibuster? Why is redistricting to gain political advantage called gerrymandering? Why are politicians who have not been reelected, but who are serving out their terms of office, called lame ducks?
The term filibuster comes from two Dutch words: vrij ("free") and buit ("boot"). These two words, in English translation, yielded the word freebooter - loosely, "pirate" - in the sixteenth century.
The French appropriated the Dutch words and transformed them into filibustier; the Spanish coined filibustero. Both versions meant the same thing as freebooter - "a pirate."
In the United States, filibuster was first used to describe adventurers who fomented revolution in the Spanish colonies of Central America and the Caribbean.
These adventurers were reputed to harangue their listeners with partisan rhetoric. It seemed appropriate, then, to so describe legislators who avoid action - and even worthwhile debate - by prolonged, blustery monologues.
Incidentally, if you can't abide filibustering for all the gobbledygook, take heart in that a politician coined that word, too. During World War II, congressman Maury Maverick made it up, spontaneously. He compared the figurative strutting of a colleague to the turkeys back home in Texas. "At the end of this gobble," complained Maverick, "there was a sort of gook."
As for gerrymandering - the dubious honor for that particular tool of political engineering goes to Elbridge Gerry, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century.
A rabid Jeffersonian and anti-Federalist, Gerry was not beyond a little manipulation to achieve his goals.
For the 1812 election, Essex County was redistricted by Gerry's party to favor Jeffersonian candidates. The resultant district was so contorted that someone (various accounts name newspaper editor Benjamin Russell or painter Gilbert Stuart) likened the appearance of the new district on the map to a salamander.
Gilbert, supposedly, added a wing, claws, and head to make the outline of Essex County look even more like a salamander on the large map of Massachusetts which hung on Gerry's wall.
Gerrymander, then, is the combination and elision of Gerry and salamander. It is pronounced "Jerrymander," although Gerry's name was pronounced with a hard "G" ("Garymander?")
Ironically, the gerrymandering was of no help to Gerry himself, who lost in his reelection bid for governor. Gerry was rescued from obscurity, however, by becoming James Madison's vice president during his second term. He died in office, in 1814.
Politicians are used to worse four-letter words than lame duck, but the meaning of these words is bleaker than any obscenity: You are no longer relevant.
The original lame ducks were neither ducks nor politicians, but members of the London Stock Exchange in the eighteenth century. They were clobbered by bears rather than embraced by bulls. Those who could not pay off their debts were booted out of their seats and referred to as lame ducks.
By 1863, the expression was used to describe American officeholders, particularly holdover congressmen. The reason a duck was chosen, rather than an aardvark or a penguin, can probably be traced back to the old hunter's expression, "Never waste powder on a dead duck."
A congressman voted out of office was clearly wounded but far from dead, for although he might have lost an election, he didn't yield his seat until March 4th - plenty of time to sail through pork-barrel measures, punish old enemies, and generally wreak havoc without having to answer to his constituencies.
The problem was so obvious that the Twentieth Amendment was created to attempt to resolve it. New congressmen now join the fray in January.