Grammar Moses: Take these words to the polls

Updated 11/3/2018 5:25 PM

Is everyone excited about the midterm election?

I, for one, can't wait until it's over. I feel like I've been forced to watch an endless schoolyard brawl in which the faces of the combatants sometimes change, no one ever wins and those who watch it walk home feeling ashamed and in need of a shower.

In my line of work, however, I need to pay close attention to the sausage-making of the election. And in my reading, I've come to the conclusion that there are some political terms with which some of you might not be familiar.

Without further ado, here's a little glossary to gin you up for Election Day.


Have you ever heard the phrase "tighter than a 10-year-old's wristwatch"?

Boys are fiddlers. So when I was a lad and received a new watch (instead of a minibike) for my 10th birthday, I was never in danger of being late because I would wind that sucker every hour or so just to ensure it wouldn't stop.

So, what's a stemwinder?

It has little to do with my childhood anecdote. But back just before the start of the 20th century, stem-winding watches were the latest, greatest thing. So "stemwinder" was used to describe a rousing political speech. A logical jump, perhaps, but true.

Bully pulpit

President Theodore Roosevelt is cited as the coiner of this phrase, which describes the singular prominence of the U.S. presidency as the perfect platform from which to espouse an agenda.

"Bully" was one of the colorful president's favorite exclamations. You might liken its meaning to "Awesome!"

Stalking horse

Centuries ago, hunters would hide behind horses, or cutouts of horses, to avoid alarming that which they were hunting.

A stalking horse, by extension, became something used deceptively to achieve a hidden purpose.

In politics, a stalking horse is a candidate put forth to test the field for someone else or someone to draw votes away from a third candidate.

Dark horse

A dark horse is not a stalking horse of a different color. It is someone about whom little is known but who comes out on top.


This goofy term used to describe the drawing of legislative districts to favor one party may not have been created by then-Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, but he became the poster child for the practice.

In 1812 he carved out a Boston-area Senate district that was shaped something like a salamander. It served to break up the Federalists' domination of the district.

The portmanteau "gerrymander" then is the combination of "Gerry" and "salamander."

Pork barrel

You've likely heard people decry pork barrel spending, but do you really know what it is?

Think of Alaska's proposed "bridge to nowhere" as a prime example of pork barrel spending -- that is legislators' appropriating money specifically for the people of their districts. The origins are a tad murky, but Merriam-Webster says it relates to a farmer's pork barrel's (yes, a barrel filled with pork) being something he could easily convert into money by selling it.

I've always thought that bringing home the bacon was synonymous with a legislator's bringing home pork to the district.

Not so. says that in 1906 Joe Gans won the world lightweight boxing championship. His mother sent him a telegram telling him to "bring home the bacon." His telegram response was that he "had not only the bacon, but the gravy."

Get out and vote!

This column is my bully pulpit (well, this and the editorial page.) And I appreciate your indulging me.

I'm not going to try to persuade you to vote for one person or another in this space. All I ask is that you vote. We don't have much of a representative government if you don't.

Vote carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.