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Looking for Red Meat Political Terms That Won't Bring a Hail of Dead Cats

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on WORDMASTER: A U.S. presidential election means a flurry of often colorful political terms, especially in the media.

RS: To help explain some of them, VOA's Adam Phillips in New York interviewed William Safire, the New York Times language columnist and editor of Safire’s Political Dictionary. First published in 1968, it was recently updated and reissued with more than half a million entries.

AA: They include a phrase that William Safire himself wrote during his days as a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and his vice president Spiro Agnew.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "I was looking for some criticism of people who were defeatist, who thought that we could never win in Vietnam. And so I came up with the nattering nabobs of negativism. That is known as red meat rhetoric. When you talk about 'there is no red meat in this speech,' that means there is no ammunition you can feed your supporters to use or throw into the cage of a lion that was hungry.

"Politicians have to use metaphors and similes and word pictures and figures of speech in order to capture attention and encapsulate an idea or a vague program that otherwise would put people to sleep. So they have to say 'I'm gonna offer you a New Deal' or 'take you to a New Frontier' -- I've just quoted President [Franklin] Roosevelt and [John] Kennedy - or suggest a New Covenant. Now that was suggested by Bill Clinton and it didn't fly for some reason. You never know when the political language is going to work or when it's gonna lay an egg.

ADAM PHILLIPS: "So political speech has two functions. One is to draw attention to oneself as a politician, so that people sit up and pay attention, and the other is to explain a complicated idea in a shorthand form."

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "Shorthand is very important in political language. For example, a word that's flying around now is superdelegate. We used to call them party elders or, before that, party bosses. The fun of the political language is to stop and say 'What am I saying? Does it have the right overtones, the right coloration?' When we talk about superdelegates, there is a sinister quality to 'superdelegates,' because it suggests some delegates are subdelegates, or not as important. And that's going to be a controversy in the coming Democratic convention.

ADAM PHILLIPS: William Safire has often pointed out that political speech is always changing. New words and phrases get created, and older ones attain new relevance. He gives the phrase fire in the belly as one example.

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "A candidate has to have ambition and a real burning desire to become whatever he's running for. And that's called fire in the belly. And it was a problem that Barack Obama had, because he was essentially cool, intellectual. He actually talked in paragraphs. So there was a feeling he didn't have fire in the belly. He recognized that and worked out a phrase that had a resonance in the black community, because it was used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 'Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?' And they would shout back 'Ready to go!' And that gave the feeling that, indeed, he had fire in the belly.

"You've got to remember that the most important thing about political language is its vividness, it's calling up of an image in your mind. In the nineteen thirties, someone who left under great criticism, it was said that he left in a hail of dead cats. You can envision a cartoon really of a man running with cats being thrown at him.

"And economists, political economists, also came up with a feline image. Cat lovers don't like this phrase, but when the stock market goes down and down and down, and then comes back up a little, they call that a dead cat bounce. When a cat hits the ground and bounces back, it doesn't mean it's alive, it just means that was what we would call a sucker rally.

ADAM PHILLIPS: "There's another one, right?"

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "I do that unconsciously, I guess!"

ADAM PHILLIPS: "I guess we all do. That's how come we know they're really words."

WILLIAM SAFIRE: "No, you know they're really words when you look them up in the Political Dictionary!"

AA: New York Times language columnist, and former White House speechwriter, William Safire is the editor of Safire’s Political Dictionary, recently published in revised and updated form by Oxford University Press. He spoke with VOA's Adam Phillips in New York.

RS: We'll have more of that interview next week on WORDMASTER. Our segments can all be found online at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.