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November 2004 Archives

Words of Election and Voting: psephology; October surprise; soft money; if-by-whiskey speech; yellow dog democrat (yellow dog; yellow-dog contract; blue dog democrat)

Abecedarian Insults: caitiff; stocious; callow; losel; (lorel); mawkish; (hardscrabble); vixen; blatherskite

Words from Chess: check; endgame (scacchic); pawn; checkmate (in extremis); gambit; stalemate; zugzwang

The Common Man: hoi polloi; demos; third estate; proletarian (proletariat); plebeian; lumpenproletariat; lumpen



Words of Election and Voting


My spouse and I are on opposites sides of the US presidential election and, as they say, politics makes (es)strange(d) bedfellows. I shall be glad when tomorrow's voting ends, and the election is in the hands of the lawyers.

This week, could our theme be anything other than "Elections and Voting"? We will reflect on psephology.

psephology – the study of political elections.
[the root is Greek psephos, pebble, or ballot; the ancient Greeks used pebbles for voting]


In 1970, he [Ben Wattenberg] and Richard Scammon published a book that quickly became a classic in psephology. In it, they identified the "Dayton housewife" and her concerns about social issues as the key to understanding the American electorate and winning elections. In virtually every election since, one group or another has been described as the key to victory.
– Karlyn Bowman, Are "Office Park Dads" the latest voting blocks a pol must reach to win, Women's Quarterly, Sept. 22, 2002

There has been a revolution in the cutthroat world of psephology: the Conservatives have dumped their pollsters for giving too rosy a picture of the party's fortunes.
– Jack Malvern, The Times, Feb. 25, 2004

Public polling and questionnaires are notoriously difficult to assess. Psephology, the science of voting prediction, has suffered serious embarrassments in the past. People are likely to ... give an answer that agrees with what they perceive to be the majority or 'accepted' view than an answer that truly reflects their own belief.
– Philip Ball, Surveys to judge truth of answers: A psychological technique could reveal what people really think, Nature (UK), Oct. 15, 2004


October surprise – an unexpected newsworthy act, or revelation, that is deliberately timed to hit the news just before an election so as to maximize its impact on the election


Finally, the October surprise has come. But it is not the one Republicans had dreamed of - the capture or killing of America's mortal enemy, Osama bin Laden. Instead, with an aplomb verging on impertinence, the al-Qa'ida leader has delivered his own election message to the American people, just four days before they choose their next president.
– Rupert Cornwell, The Independent, Oct. 29, 2004

It's the "October surprise," the late-breaking news event with a whiff of partisan conspiracy that can tilt an election one way or the other. Four years ago, just five days before Election Day, a Democratic operative in Maine alerted the press to a previously unreported 1976 drunken-driving citation for George W. Bush. This year ... among Democrats, the rumor for months has been that the Bush administration will announce the capture of Osama bin Laden days before the election.
– Ralph Z. Hallow, The Washington Times, Oct. 19, 2004


You can find incorrect definitions. The key point is deliberate manipulation of the timing of the unexpected news. (If a candidate suffers a heart attack just before the vote, it is a unexpected and newsworthy but not an October surprise.) The timed surprise need not be by a candidate or his party: it can be by the press or by outsiders (e.g., Osama bin Ladin). OED says an October surprise must be a "popular" act to attract voters, but usage shows that the term can also refer to a negative slam on the opposition.

The term came into widespread use in the Carter/Reagan election (1980), concerning a possible October surprise release of the long-term hostages held by Iran. But William Safire reports that the term was used among the Nixon team in the 1968 Nixon/Humphrey election. Safire credits Bill Casey with coining the term in 1968, and with bringing it to broader attention in 1980.


soft money – political donations made in such a way as to avoid federal regulations or limits, as by donating to a party organization rather than to a particular candidate or campaign.

As the limits change, so do the techniques to circumvent them. When you could no longer freely contribute to a candidate, you simply instead contribute to the political party (first quote). So they limited the latter – and now contributions are made special groups, supposedly independent of the parties but with a point to make (second quote). Not a productive game, I'm afraid.


Campaign-spending limitations are like the amusement-arcade game of whack-a-mole. The faster you hammer one mole into the ground, the sooner another pops up from a different hole. Thus, limits on contributions to individual candidates simply divert "soft money" into contributions to political parties.
– David Koppel, National Review, March 21, 2001

Critics say the [so-called 527 groups] groups -- sometimes called shadow parties -- are making an end-run around attempts to rein in campaign fund raising and electioneering. A campaign finance reform measure that became law in 2002 cracked down on unlimited soft money donations to national political parties. But much of that soft money now is helping feed the 527s and other outside groups. Consider it a campaign finance law version of the carnival favorite Whack-a-Mole. "Every time you try to squish it down one place, it pops up someplace else," Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said.
– Matthew Benson, The Coloradoan, CO - Oct 5, 2004


if-by-whiskey speech – southern US regionalism: a speech coming down emphatically on both sides on an issue

From the days when any good southern politician had a speech of this sort at the ready, concerning his views on spiritus ferminti. Several such passages are of record, of which this is the best. Supposedly from a Mississippi legislator in 1958.


You have asked me how I feel about whiskey; well, Brother, here's how I stand.

If by whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean that evil drink that topples Christian men and women from the pinnacles of righteous and gracious living into the bottomless pits of degradation, shame, despair, helplessness, and hopelessness, then, my friend, I am opposed to it with every fiber of my being.

However, if by whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the elixir of life, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer, the stimulating sip that puts a little spring in the step of an elderly gentleman on a frosty morning; if you mean that drink that enables man to magnify his joy, and to forget life's great tragedies and heartbreaks and sorrow; if you mean that drink the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars each year, that provides tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitifully aged and infirm, to build the finest highways, hospitals, universities, and community colleges in this nation, then my friend, I am absolutely, unequivocally in favor of it.

This is my position, and as always, I refuse to be compromised on matters of principle.


The color yellow can have negative associations. In medieval times yellow stood for treachery or treason. Thus paintings showing Judas showed him clothed in yellow; victims of the Spanish Inquisition victim were clothed for their heresy; and many governments required that Jews wear a yellow item, to brand them as betrayers of Jesus. Later, to be 'yellow' meant to be a coward. [1856, unkn. org.]

yellow dog – a contemptible person or, as an adjective, simply 'mean and contemptible.

[MW has only the adjective, while CompOED has only the noun.]

Mencken says that Abraham Lincoln "invented or introduced" this usage. In O'Henry's Memoirs of a Yellow Dog, the canine who speaks to you is no purebred, for he fondly recalls how his owner named him: "But what pleased me most was when my old man pulled both of my ears until I howled, and said: 'You common, monkey-headed, rat-tailed, sulphur-coloured son of a door mat, do you know what I'm going to call you?'"
[yellow-dog contract – an employment contract barring the employee from joining a union]

With that background, on to our political terms:
yellow dog democrat – an unswerving loyalist of the US Democratic party
blue dog democrat – an open-minded Democrat willing to support some conservative policies

Many decades In the US Civil War (1861-65), in which a Republican-party government defeated the eleven southern states which had seceded, those eleven states were a solid block for the Democratic party. (Ironically, today they are a solidly Republican.) Thus, in the eleven presidential elections from 1880 through 1948, those states voted 18 times 11 equals 198 times – and in only six instances did a state went Republican.

Five of those six instances were in 1928, when southern voters faced a dilemma: the Democratic nominee was a northerner; his views differed were "northern", and he was Catholic. (Until then, every major-party presidential nominee had been protestant.) Some Southerners defected, but many remained loyal to their party, their catch-phrase being, "I'd vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket."

I am not clear whether the term originated in the 1928 election, or was simply popularized then. Most say that it was a compliment to loyalty, not a insult to mulishness. Nowadays the official blog of the Texas Democratic Party is Yellow Dog Blog.

In 1994 a group of Democratic congressmen, more fiscally conservative than their fellow Democrats, formed what they called the Blue-Dog Coalition. Credit for coining their name goes to former Democrat Rep. Pete Geren, of Texas, who said that the members have been "choked blue" by those extreme Democrats, from the left. Republicans had recently won control of congress, and the blue dogs tended to side with them on fiscal matters more than did more traditional Democrats. The coalition is a respected group today.


I've found no explanation why yellow dog means something worthless and contemptible. Could it come from the term "yaller dogs", long the name for the yellowish feral dogs of the southeast?



Abecedarian Insults


"Sir, you are an abominable, beastly, cruel, dastardly, exasperating, . . ." Such an "abecedarian insult" goes through the ABCs, with 25 nasty adjectives and a final noun, the first letters of which parade sequentially through the alphabet.

Peter Bowler composed a noted one, but quite a few of his terms are just the formal medical names of conditions (e.g., kyphotic = "having backward curvature of the spine"; i.e., humpbacked), and the vast majority of them are fancified Latinity or Grecianizings.

Must we turn to erudite Latin and Greek for opprobrium? Were the Anglo Saxons and Normans incapable of invective??! Aye, 'tis a slander! -- and this week we disprove it, presenting some earthy insulting terms that could be part of a good abecedarian insult.  We'll include some Norman words as well – which of course trace back to Latin

caitiff – despicably cowardly (noun: such a person; a wretch)


The first line of his review ... is an expression of animosity so repellent, so insultting, so obnoxious, so unnecessary, so cruel and so unprofessional that we would be caitiff dogs if we did not express our resentment and rejection in every possible way."
– Herman Levin, producer, in letter to the editor (1970? 1971?) protesting a review of his musical version of Teahouse of the August Moon


stocious – irish slang: drunk
The BBC collects 141 synonyms here. I'm particular fond of jober as a sudge.


A friend of mine will not employ Irish builders on his sites. He claims Monday is usually a write-off and they don't start work properly till Tuesday. ... Last Wednesday night I got a glimpse of what he meant. I was looking for a football pitch, and popped into the local pub to ask for directions. At the bar were six stocious roadbuilders. It was 7.30pm. The lads had knocked off at six, and they were so jarred that when asked a question, each had to move his entire head to focus.
- David McWilliams, A pint of plain is your only economic indicator, Sunday Business Post, 25/01/04


callow – in an adult role but lacking full adult experience or sophistication
Note: the dictionaries say simply "lacking adult experience or sophistication". But would you call a 6-year old child 'callow'? I'd think not, so I've limited the definition accordingly.
[Middle English calwe, bald, from Old English calu, prob. from Latin calvus ‘bald’.]

Question: In general, adults are bald only when they've reached an age of full experience. So why would 'callow' come from a root meaning 'bald'?

Peggy Flanagan is barely two years out of college. She doesn't have any kids. So how did the 25-year-old end up getting more votes for the Minneapolis school board than any other candidate in this week's election? She had DFL endorsement, which is a huge help in Minneapolis. But she also has a wealth of political experience. While she's young, one of her mentors said, she's not callow.
– Mary Jane Smetanka, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 4, 2004

What was striking yesterday was how many Parisians expressed a view of the American public as beset by childlike ignorance and led astray by a callow news media that in their view have failed to hold the Bush administration accountable for misdeeds.
– Ken Dilanian, Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 4, 2004


Reader comments: As to youth, is noted that 'callow' at one time meant 'bald', and also means 'downy', like an unfledged bird or a youth's downy beard. Also, some readers are not in accord with my disagreement with the dictionary definintion.


losel – a worthless person
[Middle English, from lōsen, past participle of lēsen to lose, from Old English lēosan]
[pronounce s with z-sound. The o is as in low or loot or lot]


Thou liest, quoth I, thou losel, like a lewd lad.
He said he was little John Nobody, that durst not speak.
– W.H. Auden Little John Nobody


Losel mirrors a modern slang term. It comes from the same root as to lose, so it would seem to be, in effect, the old way of calling someone "a loser".

All note the ending. An -le ending gives the sense of "frequent", which the grammarians call the frequentative form, often with the sense of "small". (Think of dabble, dribble, jiggle, jostle, piddle, prattle, ripple, sniffle, snuggle, suckle, tickle, tinkle, tootle, trickle, waggle, and many more.) Losel ends with the same sound (differently spelled, but in those old days spellings were not standardized), and thus it would seem to have the dismissive sense of "little loser".

Simlar to losel is lorel – a good for nothing fellow; a vagabond. I'd guess it comes from the same root, with the s changed to an r. That sort of change in that root gave us lorn and forlorn.


Today's word comes from Middle English word mawke, meaning 'maggot'. So it's insulting by its etymology -- indeed, its entomological etymology.

mawkish – sickly or excessively sentimental as to be nauseous; disgusting
Bonus word: hardscrabble – earning a bare or meager living with great labor or difficulty


In the vice-presidential debate, Republicans thought Dick Cheney won and Democrats thought John Edwards won. I can understand both those judgments. ... Imagine John Edwards gruffly running through cool hard-realist evaluations of just the facts, ma'am. Imagine Dick Cheney wallowing in mawkish hardscrabble anecdotes about his impoverished dad sitting at the kitchen. ... it was said by many on the right that Dick Cheney came over as the grown-up and John Edwards as the callow youth.
– Mark Steyn, The Washington Times, Oct. 11, 2004. Mr. Steyn is senior North American columnist for Britain's Telegraph Group.


Today's word is a familiar one, but an odd one in two different ways, when you think about it.

vixen – 1. a shrewish ill-tempered woman 2. a female fox

Vixen is one of extraordinarily few words beginning with v which comes from Old English, rather than a foreign tongue, typically French or Latin. (The only others are vane and vat.) Also, though the names for this animal (a fox if male but a vixen if female) seem related, but why do they begin with different constants? Which led to the other, and why?

The root of these oddities is the region dialects of southern England, where folk tend to pronounce an initial "unvoiced fricative" as a "voiced fricative". Putting that in ordinary terms, an s is pronounced z, and an f is pronounced v, at the start of a word. For example, the locals in Somerset will pronounce that name 'Zomerzet'. The word fat became vat, and the Germanic word fahne = flag became vane. In Old English, the feminine of fox was fyxe or fyxen, which the southern dialect converted to vixen. These three words are the only such bits of such dialect that have worked their ways into standard English.

Vixen is unique in another way. Several older words used the Germanic feminine suffix –en or –in: thus goddess, nun (a "female monk") and she-wolf were respectively gyden, mynecen and wlyfen. But all these have fallen by the wayside, and the sole survival is a that a she-fox is a vixen.


blatherskite – 1. a babbling, foolish person. 2. blather
Skite, a dialect term for a contemptible person, is from Middle English skite diarrhea, which is in turn from the Old Norse word meaning 'excrement'.

There's an unconscious irony in our second quote. It take a while to figure out what the author is trying to say.

Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Seabury to resign from the bench and run for Governor, promising to support him against the GOP nominee, Charles S. Whitman. But [then] Roosevelt, breaking his word, rejoined the GOP and commanded the Progressives to back Whitman. Seabury paid a visit. Roosevelt started to say something, but Seabury interrupted. "Mr. President, you are a blatherskite!" he said, and stalked out.
– Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
This book won for the author the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes.

The primary implication for business communication of the positive sort is to recognize that it must face reality early; it must embrace the public generously and openly, and it must deal with the inevitable sides of its behavior and actions with refreshing openness rather than the traditional denial couched in organization blatherskite.
– Joseph F. Coates, Communication World, June-July, 1991



Words from Chess


Chess: Too exacting to be art; too inexact to be science; too erudite to be sport: too demanding to be a be just a game. Perhaps a metaphor for life and struggle. In Goethe's words, "Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game." If chess is a metaphor for life, it's not surprising that chess terms have become part of the broader language.

The familiar word check – to restrain, or to inspect for quality – comes from chess. But how that word evolved from the chess meaning is problematical

The word clearly came into English with the game of chess, which Europe acquired from Persia. The game's object is to capture the opponent's king (Persian shah), and in Persia a player would announce shah when he threatened the opponent's king with immediate capture. (A reader notes: Shah is from Old Persian khshayathiya and is related to Sanskrit kshatriya 'one of the varnas or castes, the princely caste'.) As the game spread through Europe, this announcement shah passed through several languages (Arabic, probably Old Spanish, and Old French) to become "check" in Middle English, in the early 1300s.

But ask how this chess usage evolved to the modern sense, and you will find that the authorities are notably vague. AHD simply says "through a complex development".

We can do better, noting that by the late 1300s Chaucer was using "check" in the sense of being restrained or under compulsion (just as, in chess a check compels immediate attention, restraining the player from other action).


They were checked both the two, / And neither of them might out go; / [Be]For other so they gan to crowd, / Till each of them gan cryen loud, / "Let me go first!" – 'Nay, but let me!

"I am mine owen woman, well at ease, ... Right young, and stand untied ... Shall none husband say to me checkmate.
[From The House Of Fame, 2093-2097 and Troilus and Cressida, Book II, 750-754; language somewhat modernized; originals here]


From there, it seems that "check" as a restraint came specifically to mean a device to restrain or prevent against theft, fraud or the like, as in hat check, or as in like records to verify financial drafts against forgery. From there one can see using "check" to mean bank-drafts themselves. And by the same token, "to check" something is to verify that all is proper.


endgame – the final stage of an extended process or course of events [In chess: the final stage of a game, when most pieces have been removed from the board; requires different strategy]

After two optimistic political quotations, we illustrate a typical misuse of endgame to mean simply "the desired final result"]


Sinn Fein has played its cards with such skill that the British are now locked into a process that will almost inevitably lead to Irish unity. ... We are at last entering the endgame in Northern Ireland.
– John Lloyd, Ulster enters the endgame, New Statesman, Aug. 20, 2001

The real news out of Cuba is not the flood of refugees, but the terminal crisis of the Castro regime, which has clearly entered a new phase. The endgame has been more protracted than many expected a few years ago, but the outcome is not in doubt--only the timing.
– Endgame in Cuba, National Review, Sept. 12, 1994

[Companies that overcame major problems] maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame, and a commitment to prevail as a great company despite the brutal facts
– Jim Collins (noted business author), Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't


Bonus word: Surely there must be some adjective meaning "pertaining to chess". The word is scacchic, but it is extremely rare. I can find only one use, apart from wordlists, and in that one use it was misspelled. "In addition, a bad motion picture offered a surprising scaccic feature … with a giant robot chess set, in which each piece is at least eight feet tall." – En Passant magazine, Oct. 1967


In chess the pawn is the most numerous of the pieces, with the least mobility and value. It is, if you will, the foot-soldier of the army of chessmen. The name pawn comes to us (via Old French) from Medieval Latin pedo or pedon, foot soldier (which, humorously is from Late Latin "one who has wide feet"). The pawn is the slogging infantry grunt, sent to do the dirty work.

From this meaning comes the more general meaning of the term.

pawn – a person without real power, used (manipulated) by others for their own purposes


But Diana was never just a girl of today, a simple Cinderella who found her Prince Charming until the dream went sour. In truth, she was the flowering of a far older tradition than anything dreamed of in the modern age. She was the latest in a long line of women used as pawns in the eternal battle between the English nobility and the monarchy it constantly schemes both to join and subvert.
– Rosalind Miles, A girl like Diana - Princess of Wales, Saturday Night, Nov. 1,1997

The front line was made of innocents, said QRF [Quick Reaction Force] Col. Jim Campbell: "We are facing a particularly callous and cunning enemy who uses women and children as pawns."
– Scott Peterson, Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda

[In divorce:] Before you say or do anything mean or vindictive, look at your children. Think about how your comment or action will impact them. Don't use your children as pawns to get back at your ex-spouse.
– Jan Blackstone-Ford, The Custody Solutions Sourcebook


checkmate – noun: utter defeat. verb: to defeat completely
[chess: a threatened immediate capture of the opponent's king (that is, a check) in which that capture cannot be averted. verb: to make such a check]
[from Persian shah mat "the king is dead"]

By all precedents the Poles, in extremis, should have yielded once they found that they faced both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The Germans had them checked; now they were in checkmate. It was time to quit.
- William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940


Bonus term:
in extremis - at the point of death

[Note: many dictionaries wrongly state that, in chess, 'checkmate' means a check that the attacked king cannot "escape". But escape implies flight, while in chess an attack can be averted by moving the attacked piece (fleeing) or by shielding it from the attack or by capturing the attacker. A "checkmate" requires that none of these counters be available.]


gambit – 1. an action or remark calculated to gain an advantage; a maneuver or ploy 2. a remark made to open a conversation

Today's word, in ordinary usage, has changed quite a bit from its original chess meaning. In chess, a gambit [from Ital. gambetto ‘tripping up’] is play in which a player sacrifices material early in the game, in order to gain a strategic positional advantage. But the ordinary non-chess sense, a gambit is any ploy or maneuver: it need not be early (except the conversational gambit) or involve a sacrifices, and it may seek immediate (tactical) pay-off. See for example our final quotation: "final gambit".


Male funnel-web spiders seem to be wafting some kind of knockout gas toward the females they court--a tricky gambit since a laboratory test shows the substance can also knock out the male. Since there's a fine line between a female's next mate and her next meal, spider courtship requires precise diplomacy. The funnel-web spider sidesteps this problem. During courtship, the female curls into a harmless cataleptic state for at least several hours, sometimes days, enabling a male to mate without being eaten.
–S.M Stirling, Funnel-web males send knockouts in air, Science News, Aug. 11, 2001

In the magazine world, finding new readers can be hard work. One gambit is to pair up with a major retailer. Time Inc. launched its All You magazine exclusively at Wal-Marts, to zero in on a huge market while avoiding some of the expenses associated with launching a new title.
– James Bandler and Jeffrey A Trachtenberg, So Much to Read, So Few Readers, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 22, 2004 (today)

Block the Vote: As a Final Gambit, Parties Are Trying to Damp Turnout
– headline of front-page article, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27, 2004


stalemate – a deadlock; a situation of opposing parties in which neither side can make further progress or take any further worthwhile action. verb: bring to stalemate.


The US can afford to go it alone, but Britain is not a superpower. Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules. Yet tonight the international partnerships most important to us are weakened: the European Union is divided; the Security Council is in stalemate. … I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war. … I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the Government.
– Robin Cook, resignation speech, 17th March 2003


This word too has strayed from the concept of its chess meaning. Chess does present situations where neither side can make any progress. Such games are considered a draw – but a stalemate is a different sort of drawn game.

stalemate (chess): the position where the player to move is not in check (but every available move would leave him in check).
[contrast checkmate: the position where the player to move is in check (and every available move will leave him in check)]


The press gives a good definition of our final term from chess.

Zugzwang is the well-known phenomenon in chess in which the player with the move would be just as happy to pass. The position on the board may hold no particular danger, but any move the player in zugzwang makes invariably makes things worse. (German for "compulsion to move")
– David R. Sands, Zugzwang: Moving ordeal, The Washington Times, June 21, 2003

"Well-known" phenomenon?
The word is rarely used outside of chess, but you'll find it in the recent press in The Guardian, and also here:


Indeed, the mere mention of elections sketches the perfect zugzwang into which Mr Bush had landed himself. ... Consider. Mr Bush has no choice other than to hold those elections on schedule, in January. Otherwise, al Sistani, the canny religious leader of Iraq's majority Shiites, has signalled powerfully that he will turn against the Occupation. Yet those elections are going to be boycotted by most Sunnis, which means that (a) they will be perceived internationally as being illegitimate and (b) the stage will then be fully set for civil war.
– Wayne Brown, The battle for Falluja, Jamaica Observer, November 21, 2004


Note: In chess, how does zugswang differ from stalemate? A stalemated player is not under threat of immediate capture of his king (though capture may be close at hand), but he has only moves that expose him to that immediate loss. A player in zugzwang, however, has a tenable position, but has only moves that worsen it – leading perhaps to ultimate loss, but not to immediate capture of his king.



The Common Man


"Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us." Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 44:1.
This week we focus on the latter: the common man, the man of the streets.

hoi polloi – the common people generally


So that VIP visitors [to the 1964-65 New York World's Fair] ... would not be forced to tour the Fair grounds on foot with the hoi polloi, the Fair Corporation purchased a fleet of white sedans, and set up a chauffeurs' pool in which there were often scores of men sitting around waiting for their next assignment.
– Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker : Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Life offers regrettably few opportunities to laugh at billionaires, so it's a shame that so few Americans are following the America's Cup ... At least three of the world's richest men are about to be publicly humiliated in the waters off Auckland. Such a delightful spectacle should not pass unnoticed. For the hoi polloi, the perennial appeal of this periodic regatta is that it attracts egomaniacs who spend freely and then lose badly.
– Mark Lewis, Regatta de Blank; The joy of watching billionaires lose the America's Cup, Slate Magazine, Dec. 5, 2002


And as long as we're in Greek words:

demos – the common people; the populace


A week after Election Day, Americans still were wondering who the 43rd president would be. And the rancor over the voting results only intensified as the charges and countercharges flew in all directions. ... the ancient Greeks might have noted that Demos seemed to be buckling before Chaos.
– Michael Rust, One for the History Books - election 2000 Insight on the News, Dec. 4, 2000


third estate – the commons (especially in Britain or France) viewed as forming a political order having representation in a parliament


[B]efore the Reformation they [the clergy] were an estate, separate from the once military and now landed aristocracy and gentry and from the third estate of lay citizens, dedicated to serving God first and only secondly representing the community by prayer and supplication more than by preaching and the cure of souls.
– Harold Perkin, Book review of The Professions in Early Modem England, 1450-1800 by Rosemary O'Day, Journal of Social History, Fall, 2002

John Gower fills a substantial part of his copious verses with nostalgia for a bygone age when, in stark contrast to the aftermath of the Black Death, not only did the higher estates obey God's prescription, but the third estate also knew its place. In the Mirour de l'omme, written before 1378, Gower rebukes the labourers of the present day for their laziness and for receiving wages three times more than their work deserved.
– John Hatcher, 14th century AD, in Past & Present magazine, August 1, 1994


proletarian – of the commonalty, of the lowest class of people; hence, mean; vile; vulgar. (noun: a member of the working class). proletariat – the laboring class; the poorest class of wage earners
[Latin proletarius, of the lowest (propertyless) class of Roman citizens. Akin to the word prolific. The concept was that their only use to the state was to breed the next generation of soldiers, for they were unneeded as workers (for slaves can do the work), and useless for anything more. ]

There are so many interesting quotes today that I cannot stop at just one or two. (ellipses omitted).


Admiration of the proletarian like that of dams, power stations, and aeroplanes, is part of the ideology of the machine age.
– Bertrand Russell, "The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed," in Unpopular Essays (1950).

I am told that today rather more than 60 per cent of the men who go to university go on a Government grant. This is a new class that has entered upon the scene. It is the white-collar proletariat. They do not go to university to acquire culture but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. They have no manners and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a celebration is to go to a public house and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious and envious. They are scum.
– W. Somerset Maugham (Sunday Times, Dec. 25, 1955); ellipses omitted

Nobody thinks in terms of "human beings." Governments don’t, why should we? They talk about people and the proletariat; I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing.
– The Third Man (movie, Orson Welles, 1949, based on Graham Greene's novel; Harry Lime speaking)

Exploration belongs to the Renaissance, travel to the bourgeois age, tourism to our proletarian moment. The explorer seeks the undiscovered, the traveler that which has been discovered by the mind working in history, the tourist that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and prepared for him by the arts of mass publicity. If the explorer moves toward the risks of the formless and the unknown, the tourist moves toward the security of pure clichι. It is between these two poles that the traveler mediates.
– Paul Fussell, From Exploration to Travel to Tourism, Oxford University Press (1980)


salariat – the class or body of salaried persons usually as distinguished from wage earners.
[presumably a take-off on proletariat]

Yesterday's quotations included W. Somerset Maugham's reference to "the white-collar proletariat". Today we see the "white-collar salariat".


Just as insecure in its masculinity was the emerging middle class, white-collar salariat, consisting of clerks, professionals, engineers, and managers in the new corporate bureaucracies. Unlike the old "petty bourgeois," these men were not self-employed and controlled no productive property. Instead they were subordinates in an elaborate hierarchy, and their initiative was strictly limited by their superiors.
– Stephen H. Norwood, The student as strikebreaker: college youth and the crisis of masculinity in the early twentieth century, Journal of Social History, Winter, 1994


plebeian – one of the common people or lower classes; also, a coarse, crude, or vulgar person. (adj: of or pertaining to the common people; also, vulgar; common; crude or coarse)

Samuel Johnson, on the importance of using proper words rather than plebeian words:


Truth indeed is always truth, and reason is always reason; they have an intrinsic and unalterable value, and constitute that intellectual gold which defies destruction: but gold may be so concealed in baser matter, that only a chemist can recover it; sense may be so hidden in unrefined and plebeian words, that none but philosophers can distinguish it; and both may be so buried in impurities, as not to pay the cost of their extraction.
– Samuel Johnson, "The Life of Cowley," English Poets


lumpenproletariat – 1. the lowest stratum of the proletariat (that is, of wage-slaves)
2. the most degraded underclass, on the margins of society: vagrants, street-criminals, prostitutes, the homeless [But see notes below.]
[from Marxist theory, using roots from two separate languages. Lump is Ger. rags, ragamuffin; while proletariat is from F and ult. from L.]

The first quote illustrates the meaning well. The second shows that in usage, though not in the dictionaries, you can find this word in the sense of lumpen2,3,: degraded or alienated folk, not necessarily low-class.


Every society has a group of people who can only be described by the German word "Lumpenproletariat." There is no equivalent English word for the brutal louts. The Nazis and the communists in pre-Hitler Germany understood the "Lumpen" can be a political force. ... When the "Lumpen" are awakened, as in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, they commit horrible atrocities. I thought we had learned this from history. Hopefully we will not have to learn it again.
– Herbert Romerstein, The Washington Times, Nov. 9, 2004

[Review of the animated movie "The Incredibles"]: ... his litigious, small-minded fellow citizens get it in their heads that the good guys are menaces to society. So Mr. Incredible and his superhero brethren are ordered to renounce superhero activities for a nice quiet life in the suburbs. Mr. Incredible and his wife, the rubber-limbed Elasti-Girl, become Bob and Helen Paar, upstanding members of the lumpen proletariat, with three children ... Bob is lost in a fog of middle-aged disappointment.
– Wallace Baine, Santa Cruise Sentinel, Nov. 5, 2004


lumpen (from lumpenproletariat) – 1. adj. or noun: of the lumpenproletariat
2. degraded, stupid, boorish, and uninterested in improving (also, vulgar or common)
3. of persons (not necessarily low-class) cut off from their normal economic/social class: lumpen intellectuals, jobless PhD's forced to drive a taxicab
4. (perhaps influenced by 'lumpy'?) lumpy, heavy and misshapen


1.The Marxist term has the sense of "lacking in class identification and solidarity", a sense that persists in lumpen3.
2. Many dictionaries speak of "lowest proletarians, such as vagrants". I disagree. "Proletarian" refers to wage-earners (not to lower-class) and thus excludes "vagrants and criminals".