The current showdown in Washington over the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and, soon, the debt ceiling has caused large chunks of the administration to close down, with government employees being sent home on unpaid furlough (aka leave). Furlough is one of those terms which sounds strange to British ears, since it tends to appear only in military contexts, and dated ones at that: ‘Officers not on furlough … are to join their corps without delay’ directed the Duke of Wellington in a dispatch of 1804.
When it is not attractively antique, US political terminology has an odd vigour which we lack on this side of the Atlantic. Take filibustering - talking at length to block legislation - which was given a 21-hour airing recently by a senator from Texas who, to pass his time and waste everyone else’s, read from a Dr Seuss story. The origin of the word is more romantic than the practice since it comes from a Dutch expression (vrijbuiter) related to ‘freebooter’, one who goes after plunder or ‘booty’.
Other striking American terms include gerrymandering or boundary-fiddling to improve your party’s chances in an election; third-rail to describe issues which are dangerous for a politician to touch (after the third electrified rail on the subway); and boondoggle, characterising something between a freebie and a scam.
The only example I can think of where British usage is more graphic than the American equivalent is the way in which parliamentary debates can be limited: here it’s referred to as a guillotine procedure while in the US it is known as a cloture vote (from the French for ‘closure’).