An American Editor

February 10, 2010

On Words: Mugwump

The political partisan divide gets deeper daily. The electorate can’t be counted on to vote in accord with their party registration. Politicians are increasingly nervous that if they do not tilt further to the left or right, they will not be electable. Interestingly, in today’s partisan politics being a centrist seems to ensure that one will not get elected to political office. Makes me wonder if we voters simply want to elect someone we can complain about.

But that aside, the issue today is one of mugwumpery. Can we fickle voters who have registered our loyalty as Republican or Democrat but then desert the anointed party candidate stake a claim to being mugwumps? The bumper sticker possibilities seem endless:

  • Make mugwumpery a daily rite!
  • When the impossible needs doing call a mugwump!
  • Mugwumps brew their own tea!
  • Mugwumps don’t like tea parties!
  • I’m more than a partyer, I’m a mugwumpian!

The sound alone makes me want to proclaim: Mugwumpery — today, tomorrow, forever!

Mugwump (n.) originally referred to an Algonquin chief (mugquomp); John Eliot used the word in his 1663 Indian Bible. Consequently, mugwump became associated with “an important person.” Over the years, however, it became transformed from serious to ironical. For example, in 1835, it was used as follows: “This village, I beg leave to introduce to the reader, under the significant appellation of Mugwump, . . . used at the present day vulgarly and masonically, as synonymous with greatness and strength.”

But it was the presidential election of 1884 between James Blaine and Grover Cleveland that gave mugwump its political meaning. Blaine, the Republican candidate, was disliked by a group of influential Republicans who announced their support for the Democrat Grover Cleveland. The New York Evening Post (June 20, 1884) wrote: “We have yet to see a Blaine organ which speaks of the Independent Republicans otherwise than as Pharisees, hypocrites, dudes, mugwumps, transcendentalists, or something of that sort.” Time (January 12, 1948), speaking of Truman’s election, wrote: “The Mugwumps of 1884, for much the same reason deserted James G. Blaine and helped elect Democrat Grover Cleveland.”

But mugwump wasn’t reserved solely for those who deserted Blaine for Cleveland. There were also Democrat mugwumps, Democrats who deserted Cleveland for Blaine. The Boston Journal (January 21, 1885) reported: “There is a row . . . between a Democrat and a mugwumpian Democrat.”  The Nation (April 14, 1887), gave mugwump a nonpartisan life: “The municipal election in Jacksonville, Fla., last week was another victory for nonpartisanship, and showed that Mugwumpism is growing in the South as well as in the West.”

Even the New York Times was called mugwumpian. The Voice (September 1, 1887), wrote: “Our esteemed Mugwumpian contemporary, the New York Times, is very solicitous for the Republicans to make concessions to the Prohibitionists.”

So mugwump, politically speaking, was first a disaffected Republican, became an Independent Republican, and ultimately moved to total independence. The definition became “a person who withdraws his support from any group or organization; an independent; a chronic complainer who doesn’t take sides.”

Seems to me that we need another political movement in America and I suggest we call it The Mugwump Party of America. So, my fellow, Mugwumpians, shall we gather at Independence Hall on July 4?

February 3, 2010

On Words: Pose

Although most of my posts have focused on publishers and ebooks, this is an editor’s blog and one of the things editors do is deal with words. Consequently, I am introducing a new topic, called On Words, to the mix. On Words will address words and phrases that catch my editorial eye and discuss their etymology. Hopefully this will broaden my understanding of words and phrases used in English. Today’s post about pose inaugurates On Words.

Reading the newspaper has become a bit depressing. I get tired of the strident right and left wings of the Republican and Democrat parties posing for their radicalized followers and hearing nothing from the centrists. The recent demand for a Republican litmus test reinforces my continuing disdain for the extremists of both parties. I believe that most Americans are centrists and simply want what is best for America as a whole, not what is best for the far right or the far left.

Then came the Mitch McConnell smiles about having thwarted Barack Obama’s vision for America by holding the Republican party together in a chorus of no and now adding Scott Brown as  filibusterer number 41.

That led me to think: Are these politicians — Republican and Democrat alike — who should be looking out for the welfare of all America, really just posing when they say they are focused on what is best for America as opposed to what is best for their reelection. Are they just posers?

Pose is is derived from the French poser, to deposit, and from the Late Latin pausare, to rest, and the Latin pausa, to pause. In American usage, it originally meant the distance the cargo of a canoe was carried before the cargo was deposited for a rest. As was explained in The Spirit of the Times (January 30, 1858), “In crossing a long portage, they do not go through the whole distance with one load, but divide it into ‘poses,’ or rests; and carry in succession each load to the first ‘pose,’ and then carry them to the second one, and so on, so that they can rest in walking back for the loads.” In 1941, the McDermott Glossary stated that the average distance of a pose was one-third mile. (Perhaps we should infer that politicians are a burden to be dropped every so often :).)

But somewhere along the path of linguistic history, pose took on other meanings and usages. The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) gives the word its modern definition: “To assume or hold a particular position or posture, as in sitting for a portrait.” But of most interest is the third definition: “To represent oneself falsely; pretend to be other than what one is.” Similarly, a poser is defined as “one who poses.”

Because pose and poser accurately describe politicians of all stripes in 2010, in 10 years I expect to open my dictionary and see these definitions:

  • pose (v.) 1. The campaign promises made by a person seeking political office that will be ignored once elected. 2. To assume or hold a particular position or posture, as in sitting for a portrait.
  • poser (n.) 1. A politician. 2. One who poses.

Still I would like to know how and when the transition was made from a portage measure to the description of a politician (i.e., one who represents him- or herself falsely). Any ideas?

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