Saturday, January 21, 2012

Clout the Lame Duck


Florence noticed a subhead in the January 20 Traverse City Record-Eagle: “Can lame-duck governor [Perry] reclaim clout at home?” Two words caught her attention: lame-duck and clout.

Lame duck is a metaphor. The image is of an injured duck that cannot keep up with the flock. It was first used metaphorically in the 18th century London Stock Exchange, where it stood for a broker who could not cover his debts. It turned into a political term in America in the mid-19th century. It designated a politician who lost the November election, but who – in those days – would serve until March. This allowed for all kinds of mischief since he was no longer accountable to the voters.

The abuses were so widespread that they inspired Congress to add the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution in 1932; the States ratified it in 1933. This amendment shortened the time between election and installation. It also clarified Presidential succession in the event of death before inauguration.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that clout is “personal or private influence; power of effective action, weight (esp. in political contexts).”

Clout had a strange evolution. It came from an Old English word that meant a shred of cloth, a patch. It was a cousin of clod and clot, and their designation of a lump got thrown into the mix of clout. By 1400, it had come to mean a heavy blow, a cuff to the head. In pure speculation, perhaps that was because a blow could raise a lump. In 1950s America, it was used to mean political influence. I don’t know if he created the meaning, but Chicago columnist Mike Royko certainly made the word his trademark.


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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