Political Jargon That Might Help You Understand Washington DC

May 4, 2021

Image of the US Capitol Building with political jargon words around it.

Washington DC is a political jungle, and you’ll need an understanding of the jargon and slang to understand or navigate this rather strange place. Here are twenty sayings that you might hear around Capitol Hill, in news reports, or from pundits on TV.

Beltway — AKA, “Inside the Beltway.” It refers to anything on the inside of Interstate 495 that encircles Washington DC and anything of interest to those working and living in that area, namely politicians, lobbyists, and federal contractors. It was first thought to be used in The New York Times in 1975.

Bimbo Factor — This tidbit involves a sex scandal involving a male politician and the effect a person of the female persuasion has on them. Also known as the bimbo syndrome. It first appeared in print in May 1987 in The Philadelphia Inquirer and referenced when Gary Hart dropped out of the 1988 Presidential race due to reports about his extramarital affair.

Bloviate — This one means to go on and on and on, usually in some type of pompous way while saying nothing of substance. The word seems to originate in Ohio in the mid-19th century and is attributed to President Warren G. Harding, whose home state was Ohio. This word was how Harding described his speaking style.

Christmas Tree — A bill that attracts many unrelated floor amendments. It is usually a minor bill where everyone piles on their piece of legislation. It is not known when it started, but in 1956, Time magazine had an article called “The Christmas Tree Bill” that told about a farm bill that had over 100 amendments attached to it.

Echo Chamber — In politics, ideas and beliefs are reinforced and amplified in a repetitive way inside some type of enclosed system. Things are repeated and repeated once more, and other ideas or opposing views are ignored or disallowed. To put it simply, if something is repeated enough times to like-minded people, then those people will believe it to be true.

Farley’s Law — Voters will decide on a presidential candidate they are most likely to vote for by mid-October. It was named for James Farley, the Postmaster General under Franklin D. Roosevelt and one of his chief political operatives. This is not to be confused with Faraday’s Law, the basic law of magnetism that predicts how a magnetic field will interact with an electrical circuit to produce an electromotive force.

Foggy Bottom — One of the oldest Washington DC neighborhoods and home to the US Department of State, George Washington University, and Watergate complex, as well as many other government offices.

Fudge Factory — A term coined by State Department officer John Franklin Campbell as a synonym for the State Department from his book The Foreign Affairs Fudge Factory.

Gucci Gulch — The area in Washington DC on K Street where many lobbyists base their headquarters.

Iron Triangle — The term used to describe the relationship between congressional committees, the bureaucracy, and special interest groups when making policy decisions.

Jungle Primary — Also known as a nonpartisan blanket primary. This is a primary election when all candidates for the same office, regardless of party affiliation, run against each other. The candidates receiving the most votes and the second-most votes go on to the general election.

Kool-Aid — This is more formally used as “drinking the Kool-Aid” and unfortunately came from a horrific and tragic event. It’s used to mean that a person or group holds some unwavering belief without questioning it. It comes from the November 1978 Jonestown deaths in Guyana where 909 followers of Jim Jones committed suicide by drinking a cyanide-laced powered drink. The drink was actually grape Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid. A third of the victims were under the age of 17.

Lunch Lid — A reference for when the president won’t be making an appearance and when the White House won’t release any important news while reporters are eating lunch. This is now more often heard of as a “lid,” indicating that no more news will be coming from the White House for the day.

Panda Hugger — An official or political activist who is very generous to or supports Communist China policies.

Peoria — “Will it play in Peoria?” A term to ask if something will play to Middle America, or “Main Street.” It refers to the Illinois city of Peoria. Referring to Peoria has been around since 1890 when Horatio Alger, Jr. used the town as a representation of the mainstream of the United States. President Richard Nixon’s aide, John Ehrlichman, was the first to use it in political circles in 1969 when a reporter asked him if a Nixon decision would upset Easterners. Ehrlichman responded with, “Don’t worry. It will play in Peoria.

Policy Wonk — An expert on policy that takes an obsessive interest in all minor details in policy and is known to be out of touch with things in the real world. There are multiple origins to the word “wonk.” Two of the best that may or may not be true are that it’s the reverse spelling of the word “know,” or it stands for WithOut Normal Knowledge.

Rump Session — A session that takes place at the end of the day, like the backside of an animal.

Timber — This has been used as far back as 1854 and refers to the character required of a person to hold a particular political office, possibly describing the strength of a specific tree.

Turkey Farm — The term used for underperformers in a particular department of the federal government or a political dumping ground where political positions can be easily filled by a political appointment.

Zoo Plane — The term for all the leftover reporters, TV crews, and technicians that weren’t allowed on Air Force One, or some other plane carrying the news story, and had to fly on a separate plane. It was first used during the Nixon Administration when the press aide for Nixon didn’t like what one of the reporters had written about the then-candidate for president. He joked that the reporter “would never get off the zoo plane after this.”

There are about a million others that come out of DC. One thing is for certain. There are a few other choice words we could use for things coming out of Washington.

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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