The Trumpian Dictionary: Words We Almost Never Saw Before

By Mike Feinsilber

Maybe  it’s coincidental. I’m not blaming Trumpy for this phenomenon and—heavens forbid—not giving him credit. But ever since January 20, 2017, I’ve noticed in the papers that I read—the New York Times and the Washington Post—the frequent appearances of some words I rarely had read before. Here’s my collection. You’re invited to add to it in the comment box.

Dog whistle
The Merriam-Webster dictionary: “a subtly aimed political message which is intended for, and can only be understood by, a particular group.”

From the Times, referring to the Trump-Russia connection: “But what seemed inexplicable when Mr. Trump first expressed his admiration for the Russian leader seems, in retrospect, to have been a shrewd dog whistle to a small but highly motivated part of his base.”

From a Post article on what opponents mean when they say Trumpy’s concept of a border wall is “medieval:” Both Trump and Democratic leaders are misconstruing history, and that is the point. The medieval ideas invoked by both sides reveal much more about their current values than they do about medieval history itself. Understanding that this is a dog whistle is crucially important.

Merriam-Webster says its meaning—at least in the world of politics—is “the aspects of an action, policy, or decision that relate to public perceptions.” In other words, how things look.

A Times fashion story on Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ appearance: You could read the optics as the triumph of glossed-up accessibility over unabashed aspiration, but it’s probably more accurate to see the development as yet another example of what it means to dress the part in this administration, and why it matters.

From a Post story about the arm-wrestling between Nancy Pelosi and Trumpy over whether he could give the State of the Union address with the government shut down: Trump might simply call Pelosi’s bluff and show up on Tuesday night, figuring that she’d either give in and let him speak or lose the optics battle by refusing.

Originally,  it meant the part of a boat or ship that serves as shelter for the person at the wheel. But, the dictionary notes, it has acquired a more general meaning: within one’s area of expertise or interest.

That’s Joe Biden’s intent in this example from the Post: “I’ll be as straight with you as I can,” Biden said, according to accounts from CNN and local media. “ I think I’m the most qualified person in the country to be president. The issues that we face as a country today are the issues that have been in my wheelhouse, that I’ve worked on my whole life.”

Another Post usage, in an article on how before her defeat Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Virginia Republican,  was  “finding her voice”: The issue also falls within her wheelhouse as a former chief congressional counsel whose two-year stint as director of public affairs at the Department of Justice overlapped with Mueller’s tenure at the FBI.

Kabuki Theater
It originally referred to a form of classical theater in Japan known for its elaborate costumes and dynamic acting.  But in political discourse, it is used to describe an event characterized more by showmanship than by content.

Max Boot writing in the Washington Post about North Korea’s negotiating antics: “None of this Kabuki theater means that Kim is about to give up a nuclear weapons program his family has spent decades and precious billions of dollars developing.

The dictionary definition: “full of something bad or unwanted…”

In 2010, Ben Zimmer, the Times’ language maven, wrote: “The usage has become a journalistic commonplace, as in the recent New York Times headlines, ‘For New Stadium,  Fraught Coin Flip’ and ‘Opera Companies’ Fraught Seasons.’ No doubt about it, we’re living in fraught times.”

Another Times headline: “On the Presidency’s Fraught Relations with the Press.”

And, in a Times column of advice: “Tipping the staff at the holidays is a fraught tradition…”

The Post: “The worsening immigration numbers are particularly fraught for Trump, who centered much of his 2016 campaign around incendiary vows to build a border wall—which has not been built—and has begun focusing on immigrants as a dire threat in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 midterms.”

And from the Post: “The fraught relationship between McCain and Trump dates back several years.”

Merriman-Webster offers a fuzzy definition: “involving members of multiple social categories.”

The Post: “The rift (between Jewish and black civil rights activists in the 2019 version of the women’s march on Washington) also highlights the challenges the progressive left has faced in organizing and sustaining an intersectional feminist movement, which recognizes that women’s identities are shaped in different ways by race, class, gender, ethnicity and religion.

Another Post story, headlined “Why Jewish Women Should Still Attend the Women’s March”: “The Women’s March, as an intersectional movement, has played an essential role in building the people-powered response to these frightening times, recently resulting in the most diverse Democratic House in history.”

Merriam-Webster defines it as “a person or thing that is atypical within a particular group, class, or category.”

This is the most popular of the newly-popular terms I’ve stumbled across. Last year, the Times, in its online word of the day feature, said, “The word outlier has appeared in 213 articles on in the past year.”

Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote about the condition of roads in this country. He said America had “the most dangerous roads in the industrialized world.” The headline: “America Is Now an Outlier on Driving Deaths.”

Another Times headline: “California Today: Outlier Fires Are Becoming the Norm.”

A Post article noted that a handful of Republican senators was willing to defy Trumpy on his demand for billions to build a border wall. It added: “But those voices are by far the outliers.”

And about Trumpy’s go-it-alone policy on foreign affairs: “The pullout left the United States a global outlier and, many European leaders and experts said, a severely diminished force in the world.”

The M-W definition is as vague as the word itself:  “of, relating to, or affirming existence or “grounded in existence or the experience of existence.”

From the Post, an example: “But by securing indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, and a surprise guilty plea from foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, Mueller announced loudly that the Russia investigation poses an existential threat to the president.“

A Times headline asks: “Suicides Have Increased. Is This an Existential Crisis?”

The word crops up a lot in reviews of dark books. The dictionary gives it a chilling definition: “of, relating to, or being an imagined world or society in which people lead dehumanized, fearful lives.”

“Uneasy About the Future,” says a Times headline, “Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics.”

But politics has drawn the word away from the book pages. From a Thomas Friedman column in the Times: OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — In his dystopian Inaugural Address, President Trump painted a picture of America as a nation gripped by vast “carnage”—a landscape of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” that cried out for a strongman to put “America first” and stop the world from stealing our jobs.

A Washington Post headline: “China’s dystopian rule over a Muslim minority”

From a Times review of Julianna Baggott’s novel, “Pure”: In the bombed-out dystopia of ­Julianna Baggott’s “Pure”—the first book of a projected trilogy—no one ever comes back.

The dictionary’s definition: “of, relating to, or forming or serving as a base or foundation.”

E. J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist, finds a way to use it: “There are many reasons to stand against Trump, but the one that should take precedence—because it is foundational for decent governance—is his autocratic assumption that he is above the expectations that apply to us normal humans.”

M-W says it means “to establish liaison” and is “mostly British.”  But it is creeping into American.

From a Post story about frayed U.S. relations with China and its unvarying relations with Taiwan: “In February, the House and Senate unanimously passed the Taiwan Travel Act which called on the Trump administration to send high-ranking U.S. officials to liaise with Taiwan’s government.”
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. Carl Leubsdorf says

    reading through these, I find many questionable usages.
    Using “liaise” as a verb is highly questionable.
    There is something offkey about “wheelhouse.”
    And when I see the word “intersectional,” I think of a September college football game between Oregon and Ohio State!

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