2015 UK-to-US Word of the Year: backbencher

It seemed a relatively quiet year for transatlantic words (after last year's two-words-per-country madness). As ever I'm very grateful to readers who make nominations for the title--especially those in the US who have a better eye on what's going on there than I do these days.  And so for UK-to-US Word of the Year, I've gone with one that was nominated by Irene C. and supported by Anonymous and Kagi Soracia:

backbencher

Here's what Irene said about it: 
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.
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):
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 warfare
But 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.

14 comments

  1. It doesn't mean anything, but as a fairly regular reader of the New York Times I can't say this word has entered my consciousness.

    Still, it was instructive to read the UK definition of the word and learn that the front benches are reserved for MPs who hold cabinet positions. I also had to look up "shadow minister" to find out (finally) what it means ... it's a strangely sinister term for something so prosaic!

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  2. I'm not sure which way round (I suspect from the Shadow Cabinet) we use it when you follow some to learn how to do their job too - you shadow them. In theory the cabinet and the government can be replaced at the drop of a hat (e.g. a vote of no confidence) and the shadow cabinet step in to fill their shoes, or after a general election.

    In practise, there's nearly always someone who failed to get re-elected to the cabinet or shadow cabinet but not in any of the really high profile posts, they're so safe they are said to be in seats where they weigh the votes, although in fact they still count them all by hand.

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  3. Shadow cabinet sounds strangely sinister to me, also, and I haven't the time to look it up this week I'm afraid, being sadly behind with Christmas prep. amongst other things. It makes me think of the shadowy world of spies and unofficial pullers of strings who are the real power behind things -- Holmes's brother in the new BBC version of Sherlock who seems to be something high up and possibly unmentionable in government who possibly orders covert assassinations comes to mind. I take it that it's something far less dramatic. (Sigh. All the best terms are.)

    I, like Dick, have never run across this in the American media. I think I have heard it in this blog before, and possibly elsewhere, but only in British contexts. I always took it to mean politicians without much real power -- that's a bit hard to explain, but there are the ones that either due to their committee assignments, or just due to their own personal charisma, have made a name for themselves, and people pay attention to them; you can tell they are up and coming and maybe headed for national office, someone to keep and eye on, and they are sort of power brokers. And then there are the ones that you know are going nowhere, and the only way they are going to get anything done is to compromise with other people or find someone else who agrees with them to throw their weight behind them. The latter are the ones I'd think of as backbenchers.

    I suspect that this is totally wrong from the British point of view. All of it.

    I also suspect that some of this mixup in meaning may come from that (at least in America) if a coach pulls you out of a game (in any team sport I can think of) you're said to be benched. This may be for misconduct, injury, or just because you're not a very good player. I have a feeling that "backbencher" just sort of subconsciously equates with "benched" since we don't really know the meaning and the whole thing gets conflated together.

    I never really understood why they were literally called backbenchers until the other day when the news was showing Cameron calling on Parliament to reconsider support of the coalition attacking ISIS, though -- it very clearly showed everyone sitting on benches. And (as they say) the penny dropped.....

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  4. The UK and US systems are quite different. In the US POTUS appoints the various ministers who are then outside the core political system of senators and representatives (at least sort of - Hilary Clinton was a senator before she became Secretary of State but she quit to become Secretary of State to Obama for example), in the UK the ministers and the PM are almost all elected MPs (there are a few ministers who are always members of the House of Lords, as that's part of our legislature too and rarely some of the lesser posts can go to a lord, under Tony Blair, Lord Sugar was a minister for Business for example) but generally they are MPs as they have to be held to account by the elected House of Commons.

    In fact the law absolutely requires at least the PM is an MP and I think it does for the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary too (the "four great offices of state") as they make a lot of important announcements and they're expected to do so in the House of Commons first.

    Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is, constitutionally expected to be able to pick up the reins of the government if the current government fails, or loses and election. As such, they have people in position to take over each of the ministerial positions, ready to step into power if they are called to do so. However, they have no actual power. No one seems quite sure where the name comes from but it's not actually sinister.

    But front bencher and backbencher is absolutely clear once you see how the HOC is organised, yes.

    There are other fun facts, like the distance between the front benches is just long enough that in the times when people went armed, you couldn't lunge and reach your opponent, you had to step first, giving your opponent time to react. And they say modern politics is too rowdy!

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  5. I think most people in the UK and the US do not fully appreciate quite how fundamentally different the political system in the other country is. To us, it's very odd that most of the time, no one in either the Senate or the House of Representatives seems to have any real power at all. They're elected, but what do they do when they get there? It looks as though they just pass laws but have nothing to do with making them work. It's also very odd to our eyes that the President does not appear to be answerable to anyone. There's nothing comparable to the weekly Prime Minister's Question Time. Also the recurrent sudden temporary shut-downs of government over money seem very a very strange way of doing things.

    To those who have grown up in it, presumably it is all obvious and straightforward.

    Doubtless there are things about our system that are equally incomprehensible in the opposite direction.

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  6. The sword thing leaves visible marks. There is still a set of pegs for honourable members to hang their swords — I seem to remember they're used for something else now, but they're still available for swords. And there are sword lines two sword-lengths apart on either side of the house. Quite possibly the sword line was the original red line which your opponent must not cross.

    The adversarial nature of the House of Commons can't be exaggerated. It's often criticised as 'a bear pit', but I prefer the metaphor of an arena for the display of two teams of gladiators.

    The front bench doesn't include the whole of the front row. It's the central stretch, the most visible place in the theatrical spotlight, so to speak. On one side the Government gladiators do battle, attempting to dominate the House when they speak on their area of responsibility. On the other side the Opposition gladiators battle to do the same. Different ministers may be sitting on this front line on different days and for different debates. They are there either because the debate is on their area of responsibility or to show support for a junior or a particular colleague — possible for reasons that are more to do with the internal politics of their Party. The people on the Opposition Front Bench will choose (or be chosen) to be there for identical reasons.

    Opposition figures are said to 'shadow' Government figures, but it's much more adversarial than that. Each specialises in out-debating a particular Government figure, so he or she must build up specialist expertise, even though they have no actual responsibility. They are organised in a Cabinet with 'cabinet responsibility' because that's the way Government is organised. It's the way diverse bones of opinion are forged into a more effective unity. Once the Cabinet (or Shadow Cabinet) has agreed on a policy, individuals who disagree must go along with the decision, or else resign.

    Yes, the progression to front bench represents a step up the party hierarchy. But that's because the theatricality of the chamber reserves front spots for the star performers.

    One notable exception to all this is 'backbencher' Dennis Skinner, who has reserved for himself a seat on the front row, but across the aisle from the 'front bench'. This link shows his distinctive debating style, with visuals on where he sits and an account of his battle with the new Scottish Nationalist Party MP's, who tried to usurp it.

    [Yes, ministers and shadow misters do important stuff which isn't theatrical and gladiatorial. But that's not what the layout of the Chamber is designed for.]

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  7. Eloise: In fact the law absolutely requires at least the PM is an MP and I think it does for the Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary too (the "four great offices of state") as they make a lot of important announcements and they're expected to do so in the House of Commons first.

    Not quite. A PM has to be an MP or on the way (look up Sir Alec Douglas-Home or note that after an election no one is an MP until Parliament has assembled and they have taken the oath.

    But Lord Carrington was Foreign Secretary (1979-82) so it's allowed.

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  8. Douglas-Home was a bit a cheat, in terms of bending the law to breaking point at least, and pilloried for it at the time.

    I'd forgotten Lord Carrington and relied on dinner party conversation, which is always the best guide to British Constitutional Law!

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  9. CORRECTION

    diverse bones of opinion

    I couldn't remember what this was before the spellchecker got its hand on it. Now I see: it was:

    diverse bodies of opinion

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  10. Off-topic, perhaps, but I don't think there's a specific law that says the PM or any minister must be a member of the House of Commons, just a recognition of practical reality that has become an unbreakable convention. Until it's broken.

    And I'm not sure I'd see the behaviour encouraged by the layout of the House as gladiatorial, more on occasion like competitive Maori haka.

    (PS and BTW, the layout of the benches comes from the original meeting place of the House - St Stephen's chapel in the old Palace. So you could say government and opposition are like antiphonal choirs.)

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  11. Well, the Vice President is sort of part of Congress in that he presides over it (though that usually doesn't come into play much). As far as not being answerable to anyone, the president is both the head of government and head of state. Does the Queen answer to anyone? But there is that whole impeachment thing. Plus, the president can't dissolve congress or call for elections. Most of his actions must either be approved (as in appointments to agencies) or overridden (as in vetos and certain other things) by congress.

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  12. Ah , dear old Dennis Skinner. Rather OT but can't resist sharing this gem:

    "Half the Tory members opposite are crooks." Dennis gets asked to withdraw the remark by Speaker: "OK, half the Tory members aren't crooks.

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  13. Dru:
    The typical member of Congress (who sits in the House of Representatives) doesn't have much power, but does sit on various committees which hold hearings and conduct investigations. He or she (or their staff) will also spend a lot of time on fixing problems for constituents by calling up government agencies and trying to figure out why something is wrong. So really, most of his job is oversight. No, he doesn't run any government offices. If he gets appointed to an office by the President, he will resign his seat.
    The Senate is similar, except that with only 100 Senators each one has more influence. Also, the Senate has internal rules which make it easier for the minority to clog things up, so a single Senator has more opportunity to block things. In addition, the Senate has to confirm Presidential appointments, so that is another way for a Senator to block things or get his or her way.
    Lately there's been a lot of issues in the House of Representatives because the Republican leadership has not been able to get many of its members to go along with deals cut with the Senate to pass actual bills, particularly spending bills. This caused the resignation of the Speaker of the House a couple of months ago. Without spending bills, the government shuts down.
    Boris: To clarify, the Vice President presides over the Senate, but can only vote in cases of a tie. So his actual legislative role is very limited.

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  14. Autolycus

    Yes I like your haka analogy — but only up to a point. Where it fails is that it ignores the roles of individuals on the front bench. It takes somebody there to make a divisive remark — or to be subject to one — for the haka behind and around him (or her) to spring into life.

    And I don't buy the antiphonal choirs. On this rare occasions when the whole house is in agreement, the same noise is produced on both sides — Ignoring for the time being the Scots Nats. (For American readers, they have adopted the radical new-fangled policy of handicapping.)

    Plus, most choirs are less communal in their seating, with individual; stalls for at least the senior choristers.

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