AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on
WORDMASTER: we continue our discussion with dictionary editor Ben
Zimmer about terms related to the presidential campaign.
"One word that's being associated with John McCain -- or John McCain
wants to have associated with him -- is the term 'maverick.'"
ZIMMER: "It was originally the name of a cattle rancher in Texas whose
name was Samuel Maverick, in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also a
politician, but he owned a large herd of cattle in Texas. And he was
notorious because he never branded his cattle, as was usually done by
the cattle ranchers. And he said that this was as a way of being less
cruel to the animals. But his rivals, the other cattle ranchers in
Texas, thought that this was just a ploy so that he could claim that
any cattle that didn't have a brand were his, and that he could just
claim them that way.
"In any case, this term maverick then was
applied to the cattle themselves. 'Mavericks' were unbranded calves.
And then, from there, it got extended to mean just someone who kind of
runs wild, somebody who's very independent-minded, has a free spirit."
RS: "Speaking of cruelty to animals, can you put lipstick on a pig?"
BEN ZIMMER: "I wouldn't want to try, but -- "
RS: "Explain that to me."
ZIMMER: " -- we've certainly heard a lot about lipstick on a pig.
Barack Obama told a crowd, 'You can put lipstick on a pig but it's
still a pig.' And then, very swiftly, the McCain campaign said that
this was somehow directed at Sarah Palin. But we can see that this has
a very interesting history, too.
"It's been used by lots of
different people. In fact, John McCain himself used it just last year
to describe Hillary Clinton's health care plan. And that's actually an
old concept of taking a pig and trying to convert it into something
pretty. There's even a biblical proverb, there's an echo from the
Bible: 'As a ring of gold in a swine's snout, so is a beautiful woman
who lacks discretion.'
"But then it became a common source of
expressions in the English language to refer to a pig that's somehow
dressed up. So there are expressions like 'A hog in a silk waistcoat is
still a hog.' And in the twentieth century then we get variations on
that which involve other types of prettying up, including lipstick, or
putting perfume on a pig. There's lots of different ways that people
have talked about trying to convert something from ugly to pretty, or
from useless to useful."
AA: "A sow's ear into a silk purse."
ZIMMER: "Exactly. That's an expression that dates back to the
mid-sixteenth century: 'You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear.'
So the idea is the ear of a sow, or a female hog, is something that is
not very pretty at all and not very useful.
another pig-related term which originally referred to the marks on a
pig's ear and eventually got used in politics to refer to this special
set-aside money that's used for different projects, and that a
congressman can try to bring these special appropriations back to their
home state or home district."
RS: "Bring home the bacon, as it were."
BEN ZIMMER: "Bring home the bacon. And bring home the pork, to use yet another pig expression."
TERESA ROOF: "Well, pork products today are actually a lot leaner than in the past."
AA: Teresa Roof must wince at the irony anytime someone refers in politics
to budgetary fat as pork. She is public relations manager for the
National Pork Board, an industry group where an "earmark" can still
refer to an identifying tag on a pig.
TERESA ROOF: "Compare
the pigs from nineteen fifties. Today's model has slimmed down
considerably with seventy-three percent less fat. And that's mainly due
to the demand that consumers want a leaner product."
the argument that some people have now that pork is almost too lean,
that it's lost some of its flavor because they've cut some of the fat
TERESA ROOF: "There's various different breeds and various
different models out there today to satisfy every consumer's need.
There's an active niche market out there [for] people who are looking
for a specific breed of pork, or pork to meet those demands, so there's
basically everything out there on the market, for a wide variety of
AA: That was Teresa Roof at the National Pork
Board. And before that we heard from Ben Zimmer, executive producer of
the Visual Thesaurus, an online thesaurus and dictionary. Part one of
our discussion of terms related to the presidential campaign can be
found at our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster. You can also learn more
about two other terms in the news right now: "bailout" and "golden
And that's all for WORDMASTER this week. With Rosanne
Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.