They’re called stunt words: sometimes witty, often fleeting terms concocted for some particular, premeditated use. This week’s hot political stunt word is Obamaquester, a Republican fusion meant to assign blame for the automatic spending cuts set to take effect on March 1. But Obamaquester is not a neologism likely to last—or even to follow in the footsteps of a term such as Obamacare, a stunt word currently ingrained in our lexicon.
Linguist Allan Metcalf devised a clever five-part test in his book Predicting New Words for whether such neologisms will succeed. It goes by the acronym FUDGE.
F is for “frequency of use.”
House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans were calling the upcoming deadline “the president’s sequester” before school started last year. In recent weeks, they have been promoting the term “Obamaquester” on their lecterns and in social media. Yet according to Twitter index Topsy, that term has only been used about 600 times in the past week, compared to more than 18,000 for sequester (and roughly 625,000 for Justin Bieber).
U is for “unobtrusiveness.”
Successful words, Metcalf’s edict says, don’t call attention to themselves. The relatively catchy Obamacare, for instance, had its way paved by Hillarycare, which was a tongue’s wag from their parent, healthcare. Sequester is gangly on its own, and Obamaquester has all the grace of a malfunctioning robot. In fact, Obamaquester’s most salient feature is arguably how obtrusive it is.
D is for “diversity.”
The word needs to be used by various people in sundry situations. While Obama, and therefore Democrats and a wide swath of voters, eventually embraced Obamacare, the President has little reason to take credit for the unpopular sequester. Some conservatives, such as Rep. Justin Amash and Sen. John McCain, have rejected language that pins the sequester entirely on Obama, given how many Republicans helped vote that measure into law. Even if everyone in Washington took up the buzzword, it’s doubtful that the cumbersome, super-specific Obamaquester would make it outside the Beltway.
G is for “generation.”
Lasting nouns, for example, often take on metaphorical meanings or generate verbs, like friending or gerrymandering. Of course, that’s not often the case with stunt words. No one’s talking about how “Obamacare-ish” the President’s agenda is, and one hopes we’ll never hear historical parallels that involve things being “Obamaquestered.”
E is for “endurance.”
Whatever the word represents, Metcalf explains, has to be an enduring concept. Everyone is still talking Obamacare, for instance, because healthcare is a dominating everyman issue, and Americans continue to watch the 2010 reforms take effect. The sequester, on the other hand, is an insider concept, devised by lawmakers as a self-imposed scare tactic that was supposed to push them toward budget resolution—and failed. Whether the sequester battle lasts long enough for people to remember this word longer than fifteen minutes is yet to be determined.
So the odds don’t look great for Obamaquester, even if these are the term’s early days.* And that’s probably best for Washington at large. Republicans, of course, aren’t the only ones playing the blame game: the President’s team has been busy painting the GOP as stubbornly out-of-touch. But the term epitomizes what most Americans would view as the disheartening behavior of politicians: the image of powerful elected officials putting their heads together to see what they could possibly do about dangerous across-the-board cuts … and coming up with an awkward hashtag.
*Metcalf assigns a value of 0, 1 or 2 for each of the five factors, 2 being best. (You can find scoring examples starting on page 149.) If the total ranks seven or higher, then word is likely to make it; five or six is a maybe; below that is fairly fey. I’d assign Obamaquester the following: Frequency: 1; Unobtrusiveness: 0, Diversity: 1, Generation: 0, Endurance: likely 0. Please feel free to assign your own values in the comment sections below.