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'Huckablocked' certainly not the first made-up political term, KU researcher says

Monday, September 14, 2015

LAWRENCE — Last week, when campaign staffers for GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee physically held back Ted Cruz from being in a photo with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, Internet commenters coined the term "huckablocked." The new word quickly went viral via social media.

A University of Kansas English professor who examines cultural studies and political philosophy is available to discuss the historical context of creating terms based on political events.

Joseph Harrington is the author of the documentary poetry book "Things Come On" that detailed his own memory of the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation that occurred around the same time of his mother's death due to breast cancer.

Q: Why do you think we tend to attach terms using politicians' names or even places to describe situations? Is it because political campaigns are somewhat frequent and well-known that they give most people a common reference point?

Harrington: I'm not sure it has to do with election campaigns so much as convenience: The [insert name here] Affair (or Scandal) is the usual name for such things because it's ready to hand. Such labels certainly give people a common reference point as long as those people are alive. The problem in the U.S. is we tend not to remember — only some historians remember the scandals after they have passed from living memory. Remember the Conway Cabal? The Galphin Affair? Crédit Mobilier? The Hollywood Ten? Of course not. 

Q: It almost doesn't make sense that we add “-gate” to terms to describe potential scandals, but do most people understand the reason for it? Is that a testament to how significant Watergate actually was?

Harrington: Yes, exactly. Watergate may not have been unprecedented, but it was unprecedented as far as we knew — which was a lot farther than ever before. The whole country watched the Senate Special Investigative Committee hearings in summer of 1973 as it became clear that the White House had developed what amounted to a private in-house political secret-police force.

Unlike Teapot Dome, this was on TV. The scope of abuse of power was vast, and it led to the first resignation of a president. So, that secured its fame and made it the primitive scandal for anything that came after. But by the time we had Iran-Contra-gate a few years later, the attitude was "ho-hum." The suffix "-gate" came to mean "yet another scandal. Whatever."  

Q: Do you think the Internet and social media could make this phenomenon more prevalent today? However, I’m guessing “Huckablocked” is not a term that will stick like “-gate” to our lexicon. Unless Mike Huckabee does much better in this campaign than most people expect.

Harrington: I agree, on all counts. Any juicy meme replicates exponentially in the social media-sphere. In particular, political satire — both print and live — has become more widespread than ever before, thanks to cable and Internet. I don't know who coined "Huckablocked," but it's worthy of a Colbert. But, yes, it will be forgotten by the next news cycle. And really, who remembers the Loco-Focos? The Copperheads? The XYZ Affair? Mugwumps? Here's hoping our political lexicon is becoming more colorful.

To arrange an interview with Harrington, contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.