Sunday, February 10, 2008

It doesn't matter what Obama does or says

...he'll still be accused of "playing the race card".
BROWSING THE LANGUAGE news last week, I found an item at the MSNBC politics blog noting that Barack Obama was expanding his colloquial lexicon. Back in South Carolina, he had told primary voters not to be bamboozled or hoodwinked by the Clintons' attacks, not to fall for the okey-doke. In St. Louis, he was warning the crowd not to be hornswoggled.

Colorful language on the campaign trail: Sounds like good news, doesn't it? But several commenters thought otherwise. "Some of these terms are straight out of Malcolm X or Jesse Jackson speeches," said one. "But it is OK if Obama plays up his race, right?"

Now, Obama's "okey-doke," meaning "con" - mid-20th-century slang - is indeed primarily black English, my dictionaries say. But what do bamboozle and hoodwink, those showy synonyms for "deceive," have to do with race?

The answer lies in a theory that's been percolating through the Democratic blogosphere (and even surfaced in the New York Observer) since the candidates' spat last month over who was playing the race card. Obama's verbs, in this analysis, were chosen to echo a rousing speech by the eponymous hero of Spike Lee's 1992 "Malcolm X," and thus to send a secret message to voters.


Is hoodwink related to the KKK? one suspicious commenter ventured. No, or do I mean "duh"? Hoodwink is first recorded in 1562, some 300 years before the debut of the Klan. It meant, at first, "to blindfold" - "We'll have no Cupid hoodwink'd with a scarf," says Benvolio in "Romeo and Juliet" - and later "to fool, deceive."


A couple of blog commenters insisted that the combination of hoodwink and bamboozle was the giveaway; where else but in the "Malcolm X" speech would you find those "rare" words together?

Well, in Lord Greville's memoir: "Palmerston never intended anything but to hoodwink his colleagues, bamboozle the French, and gain time" (1885). And in H.L. Mencken: "He does not merely tell how politicians hoodwink, bamboozle and prey upon the boobs; he shows precisely how" (1928). And even in "Some Facts about Treating Railroad Ties" (1912): "'Quick high vacuum'...and other imaginary words, intended to mystify, hoodwink and bamboozle the uninitiated."

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