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‘Unforced Errors,’ from Tennis to Politics
Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2016

If you’ve been following coverage of the presidential race lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that reporters are serving as line judges at a tennis match—and sloppy ones at that. The campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been accused of making “unforced errors,” to use the political metaphor of the moment.

When Bill Clinton had an impromptu visit with Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the Phoenix airport last week, the encounter raised suspicions that he might be trying to influence the Justice Department investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of private email as secretary of state. “That was unnecessary,” said The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib.“It’s a bit of what you would call in tennis an unforced error.”

Mr. Trump, for his part, “cannot seem to go two or three days without an unforced error,” CBS News White House correspondent Major Garrett said earlier this week. And CNBC’sJohn Harwood tweeted, “extremely close battle for Unforced Error gold medal this summer.”

Perhaps political commentators have been watching too much Wimbledon, where tennis players can fall victim to unforced errors—like top-seed Novak Djokovic, who committed 31 of them in his surprise third-round loss last week to Sam Querrey.

In tennis reporting, “unforced error” has been used since the 1920s to describe self-inflicted miscues on ostensibly easy shots. But the term did not gain much traction until the 1970s, according to Josh Chetwynd in his new book, “The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors.”

The term was formalized as a statistic in 1982, when Information and Display Systems incorporated the “unforced error” into a pioneering computerized stat-tracking system. The company defined it as an error by a player not made “under any physical pressure as a result of the placement, pace, power or spin of their opponent’s stroke.” Within a few years, Mr. Chetwynd notes, the expression seeped into other competitive endeavors, like chess and golf. It was only a matter of time, then, for pundits to seize on the term for needless political flubs.

During the 2000 primary season, for instance, a column in the Detroit Free Press by former editor Joe Stroud was headlined, “Unforced Errors Dot the Campaign Landscape,” though Mr. Stroud credited the phrase to basketball.

Five years later, George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nomination of his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, was deemed an “unforced error” by David Frum, then writing for the National Review. (In the ensuing uproar, Mr. Bush withdrew the nomination at Ms. Miers’s request.)

Now the Clinton-Trump matchup has brought the term to the fore. Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus wrote last year of Mrs. Clinton’s “old propensity for unforced errors,” while the Washington Post’s James Hohmann has lambasted Mr. Trump’s“continuing unforced errors.”

The winner of the election may be whoever can manage to get the metaphorical ball over the net without mucking it up.

A Term Tied To Prison Breaks Out
Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2016

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in Utah v. Strieff, a case about unreasonable searches and seizures. Justice Clarence Thomas issued the majority opinion in the case, limiting the scope of the “exclusionary rule,” which excludes evidence from consideration if it is tainted by the violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.

But it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion that attracted the most attention—and sent a lot of people to their dictionaries.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion “implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.” Her use of “carceral,” meaning “relating to prison,” raised a lot of eyebrows.Merriam-Webster reported that the opinion led to a spike in look-ups for the word in their online dictionary. And no wonder: “carceral” has been exceedingly rare for the past few hundred years—until contemporary social and legal theorists revived it.

Even if you have never seen the word before, you might be able to glean its meaning if you know your classical roots. “Carcer” means “prison” in Latin and is the root of the much more common word “incarcerate,” meaning “to confine in prison.”

The earliest known example of “carceral” is from 1570, in a book by the English writer John Foxe. In his “Acts and Monuments,” a history of Protestant suffering under the Catholic Church, he tells of a priest named William Tailor who was imprisoned during the reign of Henry VI but was “released from his carceral endurance” after declaring his penitence.

For more than three centuries, “carceral” was seldom used in English, but that changed in 1975 when the influential French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucaultpublished “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.” In the book, Foucault analyzes “the carceral system” (or le système carcéral in the original French). He also advanced the concept of the “carceral archipelago” that transfers the social control and surveillance technology of the prison system to society at large.

Followers of Foucault soon began writing about “the carceral state,” particularly as it relates to the perils of the American penal system.

One high-profile advocate of the term is the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who used it last year in his National Book Award-winning meditation on race in America, “Between the World and Me.” “The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will,” he observed.

Indeed, Justice Sotomayor cited Mr. Coates in her Utah v. Strieff dissent. With all of this new attention, “carceral” has broken free from the shackles of the dictionary and entered mainstream usage.

Takeoff for ‘No Fly, No Buy’
Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2016

House Democrats agitating for votes on gun-control bills this week had a catchy rhyming name for one of the proposals, which would bar the sale of firearms to people who aren’t allowed to board planes: “no fly, no buy.”

While pithy and memorable, “no fly, no buy” obscures some legislative complexities. Abipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Susan Collins would focus on the government’s “no fly” list along with the “selectee list,” covering people subject to extra security screenings. “No fly, no buy” has also been applied to legislation targeting a much broader terrorist watch list, such as a bill proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that the Senate rejected this week.

Former Rep. Carolyn McCarthy was the first to put the rhyme to use in Congress seven years ago, when she introduced the No Fly, No Buy Act of 2009. That name, in turn, was based on the No Fly List, created by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Before that, the expression “no fly” was used to describe restrictions on the flight of aircraft, not passengers. While the public may have first heard about “no-fly zones” over Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990s, the term goes back much further in military aviation. The September 1963 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette reported that after a combat training area was unveiled, “helicopter pilots asked if the area was a no-fly zone.”

A similar phrase is “no-go area,” which first appeared in the British press in 1970 to describe republican parts of cities in Northern Ireland, such as Londonderry and Belfast, where the Royal Ulster police feared to tread.

Pairing “no” with a verb also crops up in some colloquial expressions like “long time, no see” and “no can do.” According to etymologists, both of these phrases have their roots in the pidgin English of Chinese speakers in the 19th century. The simplified syntax of Chinese pidgin English was often imitated with derisive humor.

“No fly, no buy” takes advantage of the familiar formula “No X, no Y,” which implies a conditional relationship: “If there is no X, then there will be no Y.” The formula is handy for punchy mottos like “No pain, no gain,” as well as call-and-response protest chants like “No justice, no peace,” which was first used by New York City demonstrators after a racially charged attack in the Howard Beach area of Queens in December 1986.

In fact, when the “no fly, no buy” proposal, along with one that would expand background checks, didn’t get scheduled for a vote before the House’s Fourth of July recess, Democratic representatives chanted another “no, no” slogan during their impromptu sit-in: “No bill, no break.” Democrats had similarly sloganeered during the 2013 budget sequestration crisis: “No deal, no break.” Then as now, the “No X, no Y” conditional failed, as Republican House leaders forced an adjournment anyway.

‘Takedown’: 454 Years of Humiliation
Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2016

If there is an online genre of the moment, it just might be the “takedown.”

Those who sympathize with these withering critiques of an opposing view often share them appreciatively. In the typically breathless style of clickbait exhortations, such critiques are often hyped as “epic.”

These days, Donald Trump is often the target. Thus we see headlines like “Elizabeth Warren Lays Waste to Donald Trump With This Epic Takedown,” from the Huffington Post, or “ Jake Tapper’s ‘Pro-Truth’ Donald Trump Takedown is a Shining Example of the Journalism We Need,” from the women’s website Bustle.

While an “epic takedown” sounds like a devastating attack that one could hardly survive, very often—as is the case with Mr. Trump—the person on the receiving end may not even seem chastened by the criticism.

The roots of the combative word lie in the phrasal verb “take down,” which has been used since the 14th century for the action of moving something to a lower position. As early as 1562, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “take down” could also be used for humbling a person or keeping someone’s arrogance in check.

The humiliating sense has sometimes appeared in longer idiomatic phrases like “take down a peg” or “take down a buttonhole.” InSamuel Butler’s narrative poem “Hudibras,” from 1664, a character boasts of besting his opponents: “We still have worsted all your holy tricks…and took your grandees down a peg.” While it is unclear what the “peg” originally referred to, some believe it was an allusion to the pegs on a ship used to raise and lower flags, or to a peg-tankard. Meant for group drinking, such a tankard measured a person’s assigned portion by means of a vertical row of pegs.

By the mid-19th century, the noun “takedown” began to get used for the act of humbling someone. An 1866 item in the Monthly Packet, a British magazine, mocked those who claim to be misunderstood “if their vanity gets a takedown.”

In American usage, “takedown” soon took on an array of meanings, including a win in gambling or a police arrest involving physical restraint. In wrestling and martial arts, “takedown” came to refer to a maneuver in which an opponent is swiftly brought down to the ground from a standing position. A 1939 report on scoring in college wrestling meets explained, “for a takedown he [the wrestler] gets two points.”

The wrestling move has likely informed more recent uses of the word for rhetorical slams. Notably, it joins a family of rowdy nouns derived from phrasal verbs with “down” in them, including “throwdown,” “beatdown” and “smackdown.” All of these terms have moved from the physical realm to more verbal assaults. “Throwdown,” for instance, gained popularity in hip-hop circles in the 1980s to describe a particularly intense performance in a freestyle rap battle.

As for the recent surge in “takedowns,” it is perhaps an appropriate metaphor for our times, as political confrontations begin to look more like pro wrestling.

From Lardner to Trump, the Tale of ‘Goofy’
Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2016

Donald Trump’s litany of disparaging nicknames for his political opponents shows no sign of abating, with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren his latest target.

At a campaign rally in Eugene, Ore., on May 6, Mr. Trump taunted Ms. Warren in a salvo against Hillary Clinton. “I just learned that Crooked Hillary, along with her friend—you know, she’s got this goofy friend named Elizabeth Warren, she’s on a Twitter rant. She’s a goofus.”

Sen. Warren swiftly responded on Twitter: “‘Goofy,’ @realDonaldTrump? For a guy with ‘the best words’ that’s a pretty lame nickname. Weak!”

University of Delaware English professor Ben Yagoda recently noted in a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post that Mr. Trump’s penchant for nicknaming (his Twitter repertoire now includes “Goofy Elizabeth Warren” and “Crazy Bernie Sanders”) could be seen as a “single-handed revival of the Homeric epithet.” But Homer’s epithets were descriptive rather than derogatory, and most were reserved for gods and heroes—such as “swift-footed Achilles” or “gray-eyed Athena.”

Both “goofy” and “goofus” go back to “goof,” originally a word for a simpleton or clumsy fool, with a possible root in the Middle French “goffe,” meaning “awkward” or “stupid.” In the early 20th century, “goof” became a popular put-down in American slang. Ring Lardner, for instance, has a character in his 1916 story “Gullible’s Travels” say, “It ain’t the same show, you goof!”

The adjective “goofy,” meaning silly or stupid, took off among U.S. soldiers in World War I. A 1918 article in the Idaho Daily Statesman listed the word among the slang used by young men training at Camp Lewis in Tacoma, Wash.: “The recruit of enfeebled intellect is no longer ‘nutty’ or a ‘feeb’; he is ‘goofy.’” A decade and a half later, Walt Disney’s animated shorts would introduce the simple-minded anthropomorphic dog, Goofy.

Around the same time, “goofus” emerged as a comical name for someone foolish. In 1916 the syndicated humor columnist Arthur “Bugs” Baer started using “Goofus” to label various silly characters, and that same year a story in the magazine Our Navy featured a ship with a “pet hippopotamus mascot” named Goofus.

“Goofus” was also the title of a novelty hit for bandleader Wayne King in 1930. Gus Kahn’s lyrics tell of a self-taught saxophone player from Iowa: “I’d start to play, folks used to say, sounds a little goofus to me.”

In the late 1940s, “goofus” got another boost of attention thanks to the children’s magazine Highlights and its cartoon feature “Goofus & Gallant.” In each installment, the behavior of a polite and respectful boy named Gallant was contrasted with his immature friend Goofus.

Likely influenced by “goofus,” the epithet “doofus” first showed up in the 1950s. John Lardner (a son of Ring) used it in a 1955 New York Times story to label a dimwitted boxer: “Doofus lost every round from the third…!”

It remains to be seen if Mr. Trump will use “doofus” in his next round of name-calling.

Rigged: A Word Moves From Shipping to Politics
Wall Street Journal, Apr. 23, 2016

If one thing unites the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, it is their critique that “the system”—whether political or economic—is “rigged” by the powers that be.

In stump speeches, Mr. Trump has taken on the Republican Party’s national apparatus by claiming that the process for selecting delegates for the presidential nominating convention is “rigged.” He further stated in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that “our unfair trade, immigration and economic policies…have also been rigged against Americans.”

On the Democratic side, many supporters of Mr. Sanders see the selection of superdelegates by party leaders as “rigging” the nomination process in favor of Hillary Clinton. Mr. Sanders also complains about an economic system that is “rigged” against the middle class, and Mrs. Clinton has followed suit, acknowledging in a February debatethat “yes, the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top.”

Where did all of this “rig”-marole come from? Back in the 16th century, writers chiefly used “rigged” to describe sailing vessels fully equipped to go to sea. “Rigging” a ship involved fitting it with all the necessary ropes and cables to support the masts and control the sails.

“Rigged” eventually took on a less positive meaning: put together hastily or as a temporary measure. That slapdash sense came through especially in the forms “rigged up” or “jury-rigged.” (“Jury” originally referred to a ship’s temporary “jury mast,” erected to replace one that had broken off. Confusion with the expression “jerry-built” led to a blended version, “jerry-rigged.”)

Meanwhile, an even less flattering meaning of “rigged” emerged, having to do with fraudulent manipulation. That usage likely stems from a slangy use of the word “rig” meaning “trick, swindle,” dated by the Oxford English Dictionary to 1640 and etymologically unrelated to the nautical meaning.

Stock markets were the first systems to be called unfairly “rigged.” An 1826 article in the Times of London described efforts to “rig” joint-stock companies by manipulating their prices. The Egyptian Trading Co. was dubbed “one of the very best ‘rigged’ Companies that ever were introduced into the share-market.”

From the financial world, the word spread to other kinds of corrupt practices. By the early 20th century, “rigged” could be used in sports for match-fixing and in politics for election-fixing. “Vote-rigging” became a popular label for electoral fraud.

Party conventions, too, have often been painted as “rigged” long before Messrs. Trump and Sanders. Perhaps most famously, former president Harry Truman resigned as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1960 because he claimed the proceedings were rigged to hand the nomination to John F. Kennedy.

After Truman held a press conference warning that the convention looked like “a prearranged affair,” Democratic National Chairman Paul M. Butler responded that the nomination would be “free, open, unrigged and, I hope, unbossed.” We can expect the 2016 conventions to face just as much scrutiny about whether they are rigged or unrigged.

Britain’s EU Choice: ‘Brexit’ or ‘Bremain’?
Wall Street Journal, Feb. 27, 2016

With the United Kingdom counting down to a June 23 referendum to decide whether the country should leave the European Union, the battle lines have been drawn: “Brexit” or “Bremain”?

“Brexit,” a blend of “Britain” and “exit,” has been the favored term for the looming possibility of the U.K.’s departure from the EU for a few years now. “Bremain,” blending “Britain” and “remain,” is a newer concoction, an attempt by the opposing side to come up with a similarly catchy label.

The roots of “Brexit” go back to 2012, when speculation ran high that debt-besieged Greece might leave the eurozone. This scenario was dubbed “Grexit” in a paper published in February of that year by two economists from Citigroup, Willem Buiter and Ebrahim Rahbari.

Though Mr. Buiter was the lead author of the paper, he was quick to credit Mr. Rahbari with coining “Grexit,” perhaps the most successful geopolitical neologism of the decade.

Mr. Rahbari, currently the director of global economics at Citigroup, told me that “Grexit” was “born out of convenience,” a way to avoid longer expressions like “Greek Eurozone exit.” “A short moniker made it less cumbersome, both in writing and reading,” he explained.

Mr. Rahbari’s coinage circulated quickly among observers of the European economic crisis, and soon it spawned portmanteau words involving other countries, such as “Spexit” for Spain, “Frexit” for France, “Czexit” for the Czech Republic and “Fixit” for Finland. For the British scenario, the Economist tried out “Brixit” as early as June 2012, and by that August BBC News was warning of the “The Great British Brexit.”

Meanwhile, the situation in Greece prompted further “Grexit”-inspired blends. Motivated by his colleague’s word-building, Mr. Buiter coined “Grimbo” to describe the limbo that the Greek economy experienced due to its uncertain future. Other economists warned that Greece could end up shut out from the eurozone by accident, a possibility named “Graccident.”

Lately, Britain has caught the neologistic fever. Those in the Leave campaign are called “Brexiters” or “Brexiteers.” Political commentator Gary Robinson wryly announced on Twitter that as an expert on Brexit, he should be known as a “Brexpert.”

“Bremain” emerged as the counterpart of “Brexit” last June, thanks to Ireland’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Mulhall. Reuters reported that Mr. Mulhall said, “We want Britain to remain in the EU. We want not ‘Brexit’ but ‘Bremain.’” It does not have quite the same zing as “Brexit,” and for some it might unfortunately evoke another blend: “cremains,” for one’s cremated remains.

As the Brexiters battle the Bremainers, Mr. Rahbari greets the success of “Grexit” and its European progeny with bemusement. “It’s funny to see this minilinguistic avalanche, set off by me in some form,” he said. Though he worries that the new words may serve to trivialize serious events, he hopes that they will “end up being a relatively useful way to communicate about complex situations.”

The Clinton Campaign Tries a Little Alchemy
Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15, 2016 (PDF)

In the New Hampshire presidential primary battle, former president Bill Clinton, stumping for Hillary, used some language that harks back to the age of the alchemists.

At rally in Milford, N.H., Mr. Clinton derided Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters (though he did not mention Mr. Sanders by name). “Hillary’s opponent has a different view,” Mr. Clinton reportedly said.“It’s a hermetically sealed box. It’s very effective. The system is rigged against you by the big banks, and both parties are in the thrall of the big banks. Anybody who takes money from Goldman Sachs couldn’t possibly be president.”

That “hermetically sealed box” is a useful metaphor to portray Mr. Sanders as out of touch with reality, as if he inhabits a pristine space closed off from all external influence. The phrase “hermetically sealed,” in fact, goes back more than four centuries, rooted in the esoteric philosophy of alchemy.

Best known for their attempts to turn base metals into gold, alchemists saw themselves as heirs to an occult tradition that they traced back to a mythical figure known as Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest Hermes.” A fusion of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, Hermes Trismegistus was revered as the author of a set of mystical teachings named after him, the Corpus Hermeticum.

Following this “hermetic” tradition, alchemists concocted various distillations, such as by melting metals, that they placed in sealed-off glass tubes. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1605 tract by the English clergyman Thomas Tymme, who translated alchemical works from French. Tymme gave instructions for creating a “Hermes seal.” The result would be a vessel that was “hermetically closed round about, that nothing breathe through.”

Hermetic seals outlasted their mystical origins, as airtight containers became valued for keeping out infectious bacteria and other contaminants. But “hermetic” and the phrase “hermetically sealed” have taken on more figurative meanings, to refer to ways that things—or people—could be closed off from the outside world, for better or worse.

The English poet William Cowper, in a letter from 1780, wrote, “If you trust me with a secret, I am hermetically sealed.” And in 1881 William Robertson, a New York Republican from the moderate “Half-Breed” faction, warned that having too many “Stalwarts” in President Chester A. Arthur’s administration would put reformists “in a political metallic casket, hermetically sealed.”

“Hermetic” has also taken on connotations of reclusiveness, as it has been confused with the word “hermit,” which has a different etymology (from the Greek word for “solitary”). North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has often earned the label “hermetic” in news accounts, perhaps because he is both sealed off and hermit-like.

Given Mr. Sanders’s big win in the Democrats’ New Hampshire primary, the Clintons, like the alchemists of old, failed to find that magic golden recipe.

Musical ‘Covers,’ From Sinatra to Ryan Adams
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 26, 2015 (PDF)

This week indie rocker Ryan Adams delivered an unusual release: a full remake of Taylor Swift’s “1989,” consisting of cover versions of all the songs from her top-selling album. While Mr. Adams takes a musical homage to extreme lengths, the “cover” has been a basic bit of music-industry lingo for nearly 70 years.

As the U.S. emerged from World War II, big-band music gave way to pop songs with a focus on vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. Competition heated up among the major labels to capture the burgeoning audience for pop music, as well as for the newly dubbed fields of “rhythm and blues” and “country and western.” The industry magazine Billboard ranked records according to record sales, radio airplay and jukebox spins.

The record labels developed a winning strategy: riding on the coattails of another label’s hit by rerecording it with their own artists. Billboard began referring to this practice as “coverage” as early as 1948, the idea being that labels sought to “cover” the consumer market by peddling different versions of a popular tune.

The term “coverage” soon entered Billboard’s capsule record reviews that attempted to predict which songs would do well on the charts. In 1949, when the Chicago singer and pianist Al Morgan found success on the hit parade with a pop rendition of “Jealous Heart,” Billboard assessed one of the many knockoffs: “ Jeffrey Clay does the solo honors in this good coverage of a current hit.”

As the snappy lingo of Billboard’s record reviewers got even snappier in the early 1950s, they began referring to such remakes as “cover jobs,” “cover versions” or simply “covers.” And the covers themselves were proliferating—now pop artists were covering R&B and country songs as well, as cultural reappropriations gave birth to rock ’n’ roll.

One notable example came in the spring of 1953, when Peacock Records released “Hound Dog,” penned by the young songwriting duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and sung by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. As it shot up the R&B charts, “Little” Esther Phillips quickly remade “Hound Dog” for the Federal label. “This is a cover version of the Willie Mae Thornton disk, which has been one of the fastest breaking hits in some years,” Billboard wrote, adding, “This one will be hard-pressed to compete. It fails to build the same excitement of the original.”

Three years later a new version of the song would build unprecedented excitement, when Elvis Presley released his own rocking “Hound Dog.” It would go on to be one of the best-selling singles of all time.

But was Presley’s version even a “cover”? In her contribution to the 2010 essay collection “Play it Again: Cover Songs in Popular Music,” the sociologist Deena Weinstein argues that one criterion of a “cover” is that listeners know the original, and most Elvis fans were unaware of Thornton’s version. It’s safe to say, though, that anyone listening to Ryan Adams cover “1989” is quite familiar with Ms. Swift’s oeuvre.

‘Authenticity’ in the 2016 Campaign
Wall Street Journal, Sept. 19, 2015 (PDF)

In Wednesday’s debate of Republican presidential candidates, one word kept coming up as a yardstick: ‘authenticity.’ Where does the word come from, and when did it enter politics?

As observers sized up the Republican presidential candidates at Wednesday’s debate in the Reagan Presidential Library, one word kept coming up as a kind of a yardstick for their performances: Were they “authentic”?

On Twitter, the word often appeared in the running commentary of debate-viewers. “Whoa, first authentic moment of emotion from Jeb Bush in the entire campaign: ‘My brother kept us safe,’” tweeted Steven Mazie, Supreme Court correspondent for the Economist.

Meanwhile, Aaron Gardner, a communications consultant and former managing editor of conservative blog, was concerned about Sen. Ted Cruz: “I don’t know what it is, maybe he is too prepared, but Cruz doesn’t sound authentic,” Mr. Gardner noted.

Going into the debate, pundits spoke of an “authenticity” gap on such venues as CBS’s “Face the Nation”: Outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson had it, while the professional politicians lagging in the polls seemed to lack it. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has had her own struggles to appear “authentic”—especially compared to her main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, who may be considering a presidential run.

“Authenticity” has become a major buzzword of the campaign season, representing the culmination of a decadeslong political trend. “Before the latter half of the 20th century, the question of whether a candidate was ‘authentic’ was rarely raised,” wrote Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman in their 2004 book, “The Press Effect.”

That all started to change with the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, who had campaigned as a genuine, average guy, according to Erica J. Seifert, author of “The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns.” “By 2008, it was a dominant theme in political television and print media,” she writes.

Along the way, such politicians as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush scored major “authenticity” points. Reagan’s authenticity transcended his background in the world of movies. Even as a Hollywood actor, he was seen as the real deal, since he always seemed to play one role: Ronald Reagan. “Because he acts himself, we know he is authentic,” commented Garry Wills in his 1987 book, “Reagan’s America.”

While we routinely judge politicians to be “authentic” or “inauthentic,” these words have become attached to people rather than to objects relatively recently in their history. The roots of “authentic” lie in the Greek “authentikos,” meaning “original” or “primary,” and in its early use in English, the word described genuine articles rather than false imitations.

But what we call “authentic” underwent a rapid transformation in the 20th century. A hundred years ago the most typical nouns to follow “authentic” were “information” and “history,” according to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, an online tool that tracks word usage patterns based on the texts of millions of digitized books. By the 1980s, “authentic” most often modified “voice” and “self,” as the word became associated with a more human kind of genuineness.

“Authenticity” thus came to stand for the honest expression of one’s “true” inner self—or at least, in the realm of political image-making, the ability to appear emotionally sincere. As the old theatrical saying goes, the main thing is honesty; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.