Ben Zimmer on Brinkmanship: Adlai Stevenson Coined It As a New Word in 1956

From a Wall Street Journal column by Ben Zimmer headlined “‘Brinkmanship’: Pushing Danger to Its Farthest Edge”:

The Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border is best understood, in the opinion of many foreign-policy pundits, as a return to Cold War “brinkmanship.”

Andrew Wilson, a Russian affairs analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Post earlier this month that Vladimir Putin’s aggressive stance is “the standard not just Russian but Soviet method: brinkmanship, demand the maximum, don’t concede, extract concessions from the other side.”

The word “brinkmanship”—defined by Merriam-Webster as “the art or practice of pushing a dangerous situation or confrontation to the limit of safety especially to force a desired outcome”—only dates back to the 1950s, but its roots are considerably older.

The underlying concept is that of approaching the very brink of war without necessarily engaging in it. “Brink” originated as a Germanic word, possibly imported from a Scandinavian language, for the edge of a steep place, like a precipice….

The “brink of war” imagery got supercharged in American political rhetoric during the Cold War. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, President Harry Truman warned the nation that Communist forces “are now willing to push the world to the brink of a general war to get what they want.”

In a 1956 interview with Life magazine, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles defended the Eisenhower administration’s policy of deterrence against the Soviet Union and China, despite the high risks. “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art,” Dulles said. “If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”

Adlai Stevenson, preparing to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, was harshly critical of the Dulles interview—and in so doing, he coined a new word. In a speech, Stevenson slammed Dulles for “boasting of his brinkmanship—the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss.”

Stevenson’s neologism grafted the ending “-manship” onto “brink,” following a jokey pattern of word formation that was popular at the time. First came “gamesmanship” which the New Zealand journalist Ian Coster defined in 1939 as “the art of winning games by cunning against opponents with superior skill.” In 1947, the British humorist Stephen Potter published a popular book titled “The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship,” which he followed up with “Some Notes on Lifemanship” (1950) and “One-Upmanship” (1952).

Stevenson took inspiration from these lighthearted terms, but “brinkmanship” has typically been used in a dead-serious fashion, for precarious political situations in which a dangerous policy is pursued to the very limit. We can only wait and see if Mr. Putin’s brinkmanship has gone beyond the brink.

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