How Sweetheart Deal Came to Mean a Corruption Claim

From a Wall Street Journal column by Ben Zimmer headlined “‘Sweetheart Deal’: From Romantic Nickname to Corruption Claim”:

Last week, a federal judge rejected a plea deal negotiated between Hunter Biden and the Justice Department that would have allowed the president’s son to plead guilty on misdemeanor tax charges while likely avoiding prison time and sidestepping a gun charge.

Critics of President Biden lauded the development, calling the quashed plea agreement a “sweetheart deal.” IRS whistleblower Joseph Ziegler wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “Sweetheart deals shouldn’t be handed out like candy to the rich, powerful and politically connected.” Democrats countered that the Justice Department didn’t give the younger Biden preferential treatment.

Calling something a “sweetheart deal” implies a suspiciously advantageous settlement, typically worked out behind the scenes to benefit someone with special connections or influence. But how did this expression, which represents an odd mix of romance and corruption, come to be?

“Sweetheart” is a very old term of endearment, going back to Middle English as a name for a loved one, equivalent to “dear one” or “darling.” It shows up in the 13th-century account of the life of the Anglo-Saxon boy king later canonized as St. Kenelm: When the boy wakes up from a dream that predicts his own demise, his nanny addresses him as “mi child, mi swete heorte” (“my child, my sweetheart”). A few centuries later, William Shakespeare used the word for characters expressing affection to each other, as when Malvolio tells Olivia in “Twelfth Night,” “To bed! ay, sweet-heart, and I’ll come to thee.”

“Sweetheart” also developed ironic connotations, sometimes as a sarcastic term of address, but has usually attached itself to someone considered likable, if not lovable. The silent-film actress Mary Pickford, despite hailing from Canada, was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart”—a nickname later applied to Shirley Temple, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Bullock, among others.

In American usage, “sweetheart” also came to be employed for anything particularly good, like a favorable arrangement. A 1933 classified ad in the Los Angeles Times described a “sweetheart” as “a deal properly set up with real leads and real money spent to help you get business.”

“Sweetheart” then got a more specific meaning for backdoor agreements between employers and labor union officials that favored the officials at the expense of the workers they represented. A 1942 article in the Detroit Times described a “sweetheart contract” between the leader of a local construction union and a lumber company. Two years later, the Chicago Tribune reported on “secret ‘sweetheart’ deals” that union officials representing movie projectionists struck with theater owners.

Later, in the 1970s, “sweetheart” got extended to the courtroom, for plea deals seen as overly lenient for well-connected defendants. An editorial in the New York Daily News in 1974 praised a New York Supreme Court judge for rejecting “the sweetheart plea-bargaining deal that local and federal authorities worked out in a $1 million shakedown racket.” (The racket involved a meatpacker from the Midwest bribing New York supermarket owners to sell his products.)

More recent plea deals that have attracted the “sweetheart” label include the no-prosecution agreement arranged by financier Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 with federal prosecutors in Florida to settle numerous charges of sex crimes. And when former CIA Director David Petraeus received no jail time in 2015 for leaking highly classified information to his girlfriend and biographer Paula Broadwell, that too was criticized as a “sweetheart deal.” At this point, when the word “sweetheart” is invoked, it’s more likely to call to mind backroom handshakes than tender companionship.

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news.

Speak Your Mind