Furloughs & filibusters

Oct 09 2013

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’).


3 responses so far

  1. “Pork”: spending handed out to specific areas of the country in order to reward individual Congressmen or senators.

  2. Of these, “gerrymandering” is also used in Australia, but all the others are exclusively American as far as I know.

  3. U.S. political terms often reflect U.S. political realities that don’t have counterparts elsewhere. I think of the pocket veto, for example: the President normally must either sign or veto a bill within ten days, or it becomes law, but if it is passed in the last ten days of a congressional session and goes unsigned (as by the President putting the bill in his pocket), it is effectively vetoed, but with no publicity. As far as I know, this practice is unique to the U.S. We also have the split ticket, a situation in which the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of a state (or similar pair) belong to different political parties. Then there are the terms based on peculiarly U.S. sports metaphors: inside baseball ‘boring but essential technical knowledge, wonkery’ and political football ‘something unfortunate which the party responsible for it tries to blame on the other party’ (because it is passed around).

    I imagine that the use of Foggy Bottom to mean the U.S. State (i.e. Foreign Affairs) Department causes a certain amount of barely muted hilarity Over There. It’s the name of the Washington neighborhood in which the State Department is located, and was originally quite literal: the bottomland of Rock Creek, a small tributary of the Potomac, that had a lot of fogs. It is not, no, not at all, a reflection on the general cluelessness of the U.S. government about foreign affairs!

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