On nicknames and their political uses

That is a William Hazlitt essay from the Edinburgh Magazine of 1828, reprinted in Table-Talk (scroll to p.165), focusing on why the political uses of nicknames are so problematic.  It retains some relevance today:

The only meaning of these vulgar nicknames and party distinctions, where they are urged most violently and confidently, is, that others differ from you in some particular or other (whether it be opinion, dress, clime, or complexion), which you highly disapprove of, forgetting that, by the same rule, they have the very same right to be offended at you because you differ from them.  Those who have reason on their side do not make the most obstinate and grievous appeals to prejudice and abusive language.

…a nickname…is a disposable force, that is almost always perverted to mischief.  It clothes itself with all the terrors of uncertain abstraction, and there is no end of the abuse to which it is liable but the cunning of those who employ, or the credulity of those who are gulled by it.  It is a reserve of the ignorance, bigotry, and intolerance of weak and vulgar minds, brought up where reason fails, and always ready, at a moment’s warning, to be applied to any, the most absurd purposes…a nickname baffles reply.

…the passions are the most ungovernable when they are blindfolded.  That malignity is always the most implacable which is accompanied with a sense of weakness, because it is never satisfied with its own success or safety.  A nickname carries the weight of the pride, the indolence, the cowardice, the ignorance, and the ill-nature of mankind on its side.  It acts by mechanical sympathy on the nerves of society.

…”A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man.”

There is more excellent analysis at the link, most of all on how the uses of nicknames avoids and runs away from the careful making and unpacking of specific charges.  Hazlitt notes the nickname can on the surface sound quite innocent yet nonetheless be a form of powerful invective.  For a while the Whigs were called “the Talents,” yet in a manner reeking of implicit scorn.

From Hazlitt, here is another scary part:

I have heard an eminent character boast that he had done more to produce the late war by nicknaming Buonaparte “the Corsican,” than all the state papers and the documents put together.

Here is a brief summary of the essay.  Hazlitt remains under-read and underappreciated.

For the pointer to this essay I thank Hollis Robbins.


I despise Trump, but I fell out of my chair laughing at "Cheap Chalupas Cowen" - what an excellent Trumpian nickname for Tyler!

"Dangerous Donald"


I like "Mad dog Donald" or "Toxic Trump". I guess with "Crooked Hillary" it doesn't have to be alliterative, so "rabid Donald" or something along those lines would effectively categorize him as angry, loud, and irrational.

Dangeroud Donald is awful. Any if your suggestions would have been better. Who does Hillary have working on this???

It's actually a pretty badass nickname, if he were a teenager in the mid 60s.

The art in "Dangerous Donald” is that the mildness of it emphasizes the non-nasty, grandmotherly, nature of the "attacker."

Something vile would just reduce her to his level. See also Rubio hoisted by someone's petard.

That's a good point.

>Something vile would just reduce her to his level.

Right. As a career criminal, it's critical that Hillary stick to the high road.

Be a little more self-aware. Saying "signaling values" that are wrong in fact only worsen your cause. They create the kind of circular group-think that got you in this mess.

Trump _only_ looks good in comparison to paranoid fantasies.

Pointing out that Hillary is a career criminal is never a bad idea.

List her convictions.

If Trump was a rapper...

1. Gangsta Trump
2. Orange Juice
3. Lil' Hands
4. Don T
5. WWA (a group with his children)

How about Teflon Don?

> forgetting that, by the same rule, they have the very same right to be offended at you because you differ from them.

So Trump shouldn't call HRC "Crooked Hillary" because she might call him "Honest Donald" ?

And Trump shouldn't've called Bush "Low Energy Jeb" lest he respond by calling him "High Energy Donald"?

Since Trump is on record lying, time and time again, I think there's little possibility of anyone calling him honest. Perhaps you mean "outspoken"? The best fit might be "temper mental trump"

Its impossible to lie when you're using subjective words.

Hillary is hardly a paragon of honesty. Although she does prefer her husband's trick of sounding honest while relying on technicalities.

But what is interesting about Trump is that he is adopting a technique of the Left. They have been the ones relying on nicknames to skewer their opponents and they have done so for a long time. Presumably this is part of the same tradition as Alinsky's rules - one of which was to personalize the dispute.

So the Left has given us Tricky Dicky. It has said "in your heart of hearts you know he might".

It clearly works, but I expect that the WASP elites that have run the GOP have been too nice to do it in the past. Trump is not nice.

Oh don't be silly. Nick-naming is far from a left wing tactic. You may have forgotten President Malaise, Slick Willie, and the Food Stamp President.

I probably did not forget them because you made them up. At least a quick google search for "President Malaise" turns up no hits at all. Slick Willie is simply proof of my point. It was not a Republican that called Clinton that. It was a journalist - who attacked him from the Left. Paul Greenberg savaged Clinton for being too right wing.

As I said, it is just Alinsky's rules - presumably an import from the former Soviet Union where these sort of politics came from originally:

* RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

You're full of it. My first memory of Slick Willie was it coming out of Rush Limbaugh's mouth. And you don't know President Malaise probably because you weren't alive then or just not old enough to remember. The right has used nicknames to embarrass and undermine their opponents just as long if not longer than the left. And you're forgetting the long list of frankly racist and shameful nicknames your tribe has assigned Obama these past few years. You tried to make a clever point and you got showed up. Try a different lie.

Jan June 6, 2016 at 7:45 pm

You’re full of it. My first memory of Slick Willie was it coming out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth.

No particularly credible response Jan. It is a simple matter of the historic record that the term Slick Willie was invented by someone to the Left of Clinton. You cannot deny it. I flatly refuse to believe you spent any time listening to Rush, but he may well have adopted the Left's abuse for their own. In the same way that Trump adopted Hillary's birther attack on Obama. It is irrelevant.

It is also irrelevant how old I am or whether or not I know about "President Malaise". The point is google does not. That is, it does not exist as a term of abuse.

I know of no terms of abuse for Obama used by the Republicans. The alt-right is inclined to be rude but that is besides the point.

Meanwhile the Left has personalized their abuse of Republicans for as long as I have been alive. So Eisenhower was probably the last one that was not attacked with vitriol. Reagan was smeared as an idiot inclined to Armageddon. George H. W. Bush was famously described as being born with a silver foot in his mouth. The attacks on George W. were shameless and unrelenting. No one has shown Obama was a chimpanzee but they did with W. Even Mitt Romney, a plainly, painfully, decent man was smeared and smeared and smeared.

You tried to make a clever point and you got showed up. Try a different lie.

Projection is such a b***h isn't it?

"You’re full of it. My first memory of Slick Willie was it coming out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth."

That might be your first memory of it, but obviously SMfS is correct.

"Opponents sometimes referred to him as "Slick Willie", a nickname which was first applied to him in 1980 by Pine Bluff Commercial journalist Paul Greenberg;[185] Greenberg believed that Clinton was abandoning the progressive policies of previous Arkansas Governors such as Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor."


Or as Jay and Lynn put it in their British political farce:
- Alexander Jameson is good. He's extremely honest and efficient.
- Excellent. So that's the second stage. You list his praiseworthy qualities, especially those that make him unsuitable for the job. And then you praise them to the point where they become a vice. That's the third stage. Or, better still, you over-simplify his views by labelling them, as you just did.
- You mean, "Mr Clean"?
- Yes. But I think we can do better than that. Do sit down, Bernard. Now, isn't he a churchgoer?
- Yes, I believe he was once a lay preacher. A long time ago.
- Splendid news. We can use that against him.

”A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man.”

'Big Time, Vice – Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States of America[6]

Rummy – Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense[7]

Izzy, Altoid Boy – Special Assistant Israel Hernandez (for his role as provider of breath mints to the President on the campaign trail)

Boy Genius, Turd Blossom, the Architect – Senior Advisor Karl Rove[6][12]

Condy, Guru – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice[6]

The World's Greatest Hero – Secretary of State Colin Powell'


“Cheap Chalupas Cowen” is worth preserving in some strange fashion.

'Hazlitt remains under-read and underappreciated.

For example - 'Hazlitt also contributed three letters to William Cobbett's Weekly Political Register at this time, all scathing critiques of Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1798 and later editions). Here he replaced the dense, abstruse manner of his philosophical work with the trenchant prose style that was to be the hallmark of his later essays. Hazlitt's philippic, dismissing Malthus's argument on population limits as sycophantic rhetoric to flatter the rich, since large swathes of uncultivated land lay all round England, has been hailed as "the most substantial, comprehensive, and brilliant of the Romantic ripostes to Malthus". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hazlitt

Yes, a man who really needs to be read more widely.

"large swathes of uncultivated land lay all round England": yeah, what use is pasture, meadow, rough grazing and woodland? Speed the plough.

To be fair, Hazlitt is pretty good. Or so I thought as a schoolboy.

If ever there were a form of empirical evidence to trust, it is "boasts of an eminent character."

Hazlitt was being sarcastic.

And of course the best thing about Hazlitt is that Philip Swallow, the protagonist of David Lodge's Small World, wrote a book on him.

You can't nickname the monarch. Neoreaction wins again.

Richard the LionHearted? Elizabeth The Virgin Queen?

You are way off: http://www.toptwentylists.com/History/monarch_nicknames_en.htm And those are just in England.

How many people publicly called Mary I "Bloody Mary" or Richard III "Crouchback"? Lèse majesté http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=MEX19080406.2.4

Smart people like Hazlitt and others decry nicknames and so much else of Trump's approach. They don't realize Trump doesn't care one whit about smart people. Dumb people's votes count the same amount and there's a lot more of those. He's just trying to win. This is the essence of Scott Adams' oft-cited Trump take.

"They don’t realize Trump doesn’t care one whit about smart people."

Exactly. Trump is a populist candidate and it's been a long time since the US has had one. We've had a long string of Party orthodox candidates going all the way back to Ross Perot.

It seems as if the intellectual and media classes are still trying to come to grips with reality. If you assume the validity of the 5 stages of grief model it appears as if the intellegisia have passed through Shock and Denial and are now stuck somewhere between Anger and Bargaining.

Did you see Terence Tao on the difference between mutual knowledge and common knowledge? I think it's pretty good.

I think the mutual knowledge that Trump is not fit to be President spreads pretty wide, outside the elite.

It just wasn't recognized as common knowledge.

It is a long time until November.

No, I disagree with the article and the analogy. Trump's fit for office isn't an example of the Emperor not having clothes. The issue has been debated and discussed endlessly. The author just refuses to admit that a large fraction of the electorate actually believes that Trump is fit to be President. The author is guilty of projection. He doesn't believe Trump is fit and can't believe anyone else really thinks Trump is fit for office, therefore he concludes they must be deluding themselves.

Furthermore, this part is classic:

"Important note: I anticipate there will be any number of “tu quoque” responses, asserting for instance that Hillary Clinton is also unfit to be the US president. I personally do not believe that to be the case (and certainly not to the extent that Trump exhibits), but in any event such an assertion has no logical bearing on the qualification of Trump for the presidency."

He completely places off topic the rather straight forward argument that even for people who don't believe Trump is particularly fit for office that they may still believe that Hillary Clinton is less fit for office than Donald Trump. The author appears to be exactly the type of person that msgkings is referencing at the top of the thread.

As I say above, Trump only looks good when compared to a paranoid fantasy.

I expect the wheels to come off his truck shortly. He's proven that he can't straighten up and act Presidential. He has no self-control.

Keep dreaming anon. Trump is who he is and the media never stops showing him to the public. Nothing he does or says will change any perceptions of him for the worse (or better), it's already out there. And his voters love it.

You are one of those smart people who he is ignoring. There are 2 dumdums for every one of you that want to vote for him.

Hillary will get plenty of dumdum votes too, and it will be a close race which she will probably win.

Harding there are other ways to lack self control besides being a drunk.

When your defense is "we have enough dumb people to win," I think you are demonstrating the "mutual knowledge" of which we speak.

And no, I don't think people are that dumb, they are just being stubborn, which is actually something different.

I admire your positivity. Lots of people are dumb. As Larry Summers once wrote: "There are idiots out there. Look around you."

I'm not trying to be mean. Let's say there are lots of people who don't value the same things in candidates that smarter people do.

"As I say above, Trump only looks good when compared to a paranoid fantasy."

I think to describe the point of view that Hillary Clinton as less fit for office than Trump as a 'paranoid fantasy' is a classic example of mood affiliation. There are clearly a sizable group of people (and not just those with low IQ's) who believe that Clinton's past and current behavior are worse than Trump's for someone who will be President.

As a reasonably high IQ person, I don't believe I've ever heard a convincing case that Clinton is dangerous, or even diverges from the trends of the last 5 Presidents.

When I point that out the deeply dissonant just respond "see, she's a politician!"

That's not the claim you started with. If you want to impress a reasonably high IQ person, make the case you started with.

With his nicknames, Trump clearly is breaking a lot of old ground. Having said that, there is clearly a constellation of pseudo-nicknames in politics, i.e., short phrases that aren't nicknames but are used pejoratively. The use of the phrase "Binders full of women" to denigrate Mitt Romney comes to mind.

The more common perjorative I heard from the Left regarding Romney was calling him Mittens.

You do know that Mitt could be considered a nickname too, right?

'Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney’s real first name is not Mitt – and it’s not Gromit or Mittens either.

According to a new 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll released on Tuesday, only 6 percent of respondents knew that the former Massachusetts governor’s first name is actually Willard. Mitt is his middle name.

About 20 percent of voters thought Romney’s first name was Mitt, 18 percent thought it was Mitchell and 8 percent picked Milton, while Gromit and Mittens received 2 percent each. Forty four percent said they didn’t know what his real name was.' http://blogs.reuters.com/talesfromthetrail/2012/01/03/mittens-romney-americans-dont-know-republican-frontrunners-real-name/

Game theory problem:

Your opponent uses nicknames. Slogans.

Your reaction and counter strategy: (fill in here)***

Assume some part of the population is guided by emotion, tribal identity. Assume some other part of the population is a bit rational, but tends to follow a crowd, with a desire to be with a winner.

Do you match. Do you find a surrogate to match for you or to initiate (Remember Spiro Agnew) Do you act like you are above this (Ever heard of Adlai Stevenson)

Do you make a joke of it, so that the person repeating the nickname looks like a fool for doing so.

***Muslims, Mexicans, former game show losing contestants in the Apprentice are disqualified from participating, and sitting federal judges of Mexican or Muslim descent are ineligible to participate.

Following up with making a joke of it:

"“I didn’t make these comments up, I just repeated the ones he’s made,” Clinton said while campaigning Sunday. “I just read chapter and verse.”

You don't need to call your opponent an idiot if he proves it for you with his own words.

Hillary Clinton responding to Terry Gross, who was pressing Clinton about her claim that she has always publicly supported gay marriage:

"“No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify,” Clinton snapped back. “I think you’re trying to say I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons, and that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record, I have a great commitment to this issue, and I am proud of what I’ve done and the progress we’re making.”


Bill, tell me, is Terry Gross party of the vast, right-wing conspiracy that Hillary "the liar" Clinton is besieged by?

Hillary Clinton lying for 13 minutes straight:


Jon Stewart, honorary member of the vast, right-wing conspiracy:


Pretty rich post coming from the guy who was just boosting the use of the "neo-reactionary" label to denigrate those with whom he disagrees.

What does "Cheap Chalupas" mean? (I'm not American: is Chalupa a slang word or someone's name?)

'A chalupa (Spanish pronunciation: [tʃaˈlupa]) is a tostada platter in Mexican cuisine. It is a specialty of south-central Mexico, including the states of Puebla, Guerrero and Oaxaca. Chalupas are made by pressing a thin layer of masa dough around the outside of a small mold, in the process creating a concave container resembling the boat of the same name, and then deep frying the result to produce crisp, shallow corn cups. These are filled with various ingredients such as shredded chicken, pork, chopped onion, chipotle pepper, red salsa, or green salsa.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalupa

It references Prof. Cowen's love of strip mall and gas station restaurants of various cuisines, including Mexican.

I don't speak for Roissy or anyone who uses the term, but as I understand it, the term "Cheap Chalupa" does not only reference a love of non-mainstream food, it also comes from the Open Border policies that assume America would be better off if the working class was reduced to eating a bowl of rice and a handful of beans a day.

As such it is cruel and hence probably very effective.

No. The people who are called this name give zero damns because it sounds so idiotic it does nothing more than undermine those who use it.

Jan June 6, 2016 at 7:49 pm

No. The people who are called this name give zero damns because it sounds so idiotic it does nothing more than undermine those who use it.

I am not sure you are the intended market for this term. As for it being idiotic, I notice that the term appeals to people right across the political spectrum on this blog. From p_a to Harding. They find it funny. That is, it works. Cruelty often does. Now it is possible that it appeals to either end of the spectrum without including anyone in the center. But I doubt it.

I don't like cruelty, but I still find it funny. It's alliterative and there's an underlying truth to the nickname. On the other hand if I thought it really bothered Cowen, I would never use it. I don't like pointless cruelty.

Not quite, I don't think. The name highlights the argument that 'elites' benefit from immigration in the form of, e.g., cheap chalupas.

Something so puerile can hardly be expected to reach 'cruel' status. Our estimable host shrugs off much worse.

"I notice that the term appeals to people right across the political spectrum on this blog. From p_a to Harding."

Consider what p_a and Harding have in common that may be more salient than their positions on the political spectrum.

So, for example: "brute"?

And then, Ambrose Bierce:
"OLEAGINOUS, adj. Oily, smooth, sleek. Disraeli once described the manner of Bishop Wilberforce as "unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous." And the good prelate was ever afterward known as Soapy Sam. For every man there is something in the vocabulary that would stick to him like a second skin. His enemies have only to find it."

"Drang und Sturm" Donald?

America's William Wallace.

Seek the mental help you so clearly need before it's too late.

That's laughable. Here we have 20 or 30 different people all calling Trump foul names and laughing and slapping each other on the back and someone says something positive and you think THEY are wrong? You have Trump derangement syndrome.

I know it's tough but maybe use a ruler or other straight-edge to help you work out how the nesting works here. There's nothing positive in the post Ed is replying to.

Hillary needs to come up with something for Trump like the ".22 caliber mind in a .357 Magnum world" line which President Bartlet in the West Wing used to put down his folksy Republican opponent.

Real life isn't a Left wing fictional fantasy. Though it might be amusing if she tried to stick Trump with such a nick name.

How's that Drumpf thing working out for John Oliver?

So is it then wrong to refer to ISIS as Daesh?

Ach, every one of you on this blog is a piker.

The obvious derogatory appellation for DJT is "Chump. Donald Chump."

None of you are simple-minded or malicious enough to match my singularly vicious idiocy. I will take my payment in sushi.

That's a good one. You win the Internet for today.

Or how about "Dumb Donald"?

Hey Hey Hey! The Cosby tie-in is a bonus.

Never forget, Tyler Cowen's nickname is Cheap Chalupas and he wants American workers replaced by Aztec peasants.

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