It was news to me, and struck me as somewhat odd, since the term has a particular meaning in BrE that doesn't really migrate to a non-partliamentary system. To quote the BBC UK Politics site (with added emphasis):I've seen the word used this year (singular and plural, but more commonly plural, it seems) by US print media (with some TV mentions) to refer to the members of a certain congressional caucus who were first elected in the elections of 2010/2012/2014, and so at this point can't all be referred to as "freshmen", the usual term for first termers. But the point of the caucus is that they are influential as a bloc but aren't leadership, and are in fact opposed to their own partisan leadership. Ironically, the caucus' primary grievance with that leadership has been the way in which congressional procedure has been altered along Westminsterian lines (centralizing power in the speakership, making the position partisan, tightening party influence over committees, the Hastert Rule) since Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995.
I'm not quite sure the term quite fits as a description of this caucus' position in terms of power, but the term has been used to refer to its members in 2015.
The vast majority of parliamentarians do not hold ministerial or shadow ministerial office and are known as backbenchers. They are so-called because they sit on the back benches of the Commons or Lords - ministers and their opposition counterparts sit on the front benches.In the US system, members of the legislature are not members of the cabinet (which is part of the executive branch of government) and there's no such thing as a shadow cabinet in the US system. There's also no assigned seating in the House of Representatives, so no one has to be 'on the back benches'. For those reasons backbencher struck me as a strange travel(l)er. And yet--this is what words do; they travel and they change. Semantic change is a common theme in this blog's Words of the Year. In this case, backbencher has gone from being a literal description in the UK to being a metaphorical one in US politics. It seems to refer generally to members of Congress without particular standing (e.g. as Speaker or Whip--and maybe also chairs of important committees?), but particularly to those who like to cause a bit of trouble by not necessarily following the party line.
Ben Yagoda, on his Not One-Off Britishisms blog, wrote about US use of backbencher in 2013. As Yagoda notes, the term goes back to 1910 in UK politics. The first US use to refer to US politicians he's found is from 1988 in the New York Times, quoting Newt Gingrich. Ben has noted elsewhere that Gingrich seems to like Britishisms:
If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything…. But he’s the Speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be President of the United States.I've found an earlier one in The New Republic via the Corpus of Historical American English: 1987. It again refers to Republicans:
It's understandable how Republican backbenchers in the House can come to view politics as a form of warfareBut it wasn't too long before it was also being used to refer to Democrats, as in this 1991 article about Senator Tom Harkin--again in the New Republic, via Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):
The congressional leadership eyes with wariness the contentiousness of the Iowan senator [Tom Harkin]. But breaking through the niceties of bipartisan etiquette to savage the opposition is essential to the backbencher's appeal. He practices a deeply rooted politics of frustration, still echoing with the populist oratory of William Jennings Bryan, that has been suddenly galvanized again.(The first article is by 'The Editors', the second by Sidney Blumenthal. It's possible Blumenthal wrote both.)
Why is backbencher WotY for 2015? Has its use risen lately? I can't easily tell,* but it certainly seems that people are noticing it these days. As the US gears up for elections, perhaps it will be heard more. In other words, it seems topical enough for the title.
Thanks again to the nominators!
For the US-to-UK WotY, please see the next post!
* It's difficult to investigate whether its use for US politicians on the rise because that involves clicking through and reading every single context it occurs in to determine whether it's referring to an American or reporting on parliamentary politics elsewhere. It's also hard to find corpora that go all the way up to 2015. COCA ends in 2012, and it has no uses of backbencher after 2010. Of the five uses of singular backbencher in COCA from after 2000, four are about Americans. Of the 11 plural uses, five are about Americans. Searching for it on US newspaper websites gives me a smattering of usages since 2010.