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Knowing the Lingo as Americans Cast Their Ballots, Absentee or Otherwise

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: dictionary editor Ben Zimmer explains terms from the U.S. presidential campaign.

RS: We start with "battleground state" and "swing state."

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, they're usually used pretty interchangeably. They are states where we don't whether they will go for the Republican ticket or the Democratic ticket, and that's where the election will be decided."

RS: "So the swing states or the battleground states would be Michigan. Ohio ... "

AA: "Ohio. Pennsylvania, we hear a lot."

RS: "Florida."

BEN ZIMMER: "That's right, and those are the states that have been really crucial in the past few presidential elections. One way that people have been talking about it in the past few elections is in terms of color. There are red states, which are assumed to go for the Republicans, blue states for the Democrats, and the ones that we're not sure of, people call purple states.

"The television networks actually set up a system of color-coding so that there would be no favoritism. They would actually switch the colors blue and red based on the incumbent party. So, for instance, in two thousand the incumbent party was Democratic and that color was blue.

"In two thousand four the incumbent party was Republican and they switched the color-coding so that the incumbents had red. But that meant that the Democrats were blue again.

"The system was supposed to switch over again this year, but it looks like they're just going to hold on to that. Otherwise it would just be very confusing for people, because that's the association everybody has now."

RS: "And it's good that it's not on the ballot."

BEN ZIMMER: "That's true. I'm color blind, so I would have a real problem with that if they started using colors on the ballot."

RS: "Speaking of ballots, what's an absentee ballot? We're hearing a lot about that too."

BEN ZIMMER: "This is actually becoming a very widespread phenomenon now. A lot of states are encouraging people to vote ahead of time. They don't ask you why anymore. They just say go ahead, do it by mail. And this is seen as a way to increase voter participation for people who might have a problem getting out to the polls on Election Day.

"But it's also changing things quite a lot because large numbers of people are voting by mail well before Election Day. And so the whole dynamics of the kind of endgame of the election could be very different because people are voting much earlier now."

AA: "And in fact even the campaigns are offering to send people absentee ballot applications."

BEN ZIMMER: "That's right. I mean, this is really crucial also with older voters who might have trouble getting to the polling stations. And so we've seen a big push in states like Florida to have elderly voters vote absentee."

RS: "One of the expressions we've been seeing in the news lately because we've had two political conventions is post-convention bump."

BEN ZIMMER: "That refers to the spike in the polls for a candidate immediately after a political convention. So the Democrats had their convention first this year and we saw a rise in the polls that favored Obama.

"And then the Republicans had their convention the next week and they got an even bigger bump because of all the attention mostly surrounding the vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska."

AA: "And another term we're hearing in connection with Sarah Palin is 'Hail Mary pass.'"

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, that's an interesting term that made the transition from religion to sports to politics. So a 'Hail Mary' is a devotional prayer that's said by Catholics, and then it made the transition to sports. Roger Staubach, who was a famous football player in the nineteen seventies, referred to a forward pass that he made at the end of an important football game as a 'Hail Mary pass,' which means he just threw it and said a prayer, hoping that it would be caught.

"And sure enough, the ball was caught and his team won that important game. And so that then became a metaphor for any kind of desperate move made to try to obtain a victory. So when Sarah Palin was announced, some people said 'Oh, this is just a Hail Mary pass. He's just trying to get ahead of Obama by making this unexpected move.'"

RS: Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, an online thesaurus and dictionary. More terms from the campaign trail next week.

AA: As for those post-convention bumps, we should note that as of Tuesday, the average of national polls had Barack Obama ahead by three points.

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.