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November 3, 2008
Slang of the Week: the elephant’s instep (noun phrase)
the best (archaic)

Gosh, did you see Harriet singing that White Stripes song on American Idol? It was the elephant’s instep!

Celebrity quote
“The problem which SNIA refers to in the title clearly does not lie with interoperability. Interoperability is the bee's knees, the elephant's instep, the cat's whiskers, according to survey participants (and translated through a 1920s American).”
-Tech writer Austin Modine
Happy Election! Even if you aren’t in the United States, you’d have to live in a cave not to have been barraged with information about the presidential contest on November 4. But instead of adding to the political analysis, I thought I’d take a lighter look at slang related to the mascots of the two major parties: the elephant and the donkey.

The elephant has represented Republicans since the late nineteenth century, when the symbol was popularized by cartoonist Thomas Nast. The elephant’s instep is a 1920s flapper term and cousin of synonyms the clam’s garters and the eel’s ankles. Another vintage pachyderm-related expression is to see the elephant (to see the world and experience as much as possible) back from the days when elephants were a novelty rarely found out of their natural habitats. On the dark side, elephant is a nineteenth century word for heroin.

The donkey, symbolizing the Democrats, has a more unusual history. According to the Democratic National Committee website, the donkey was originally used as a criticism of Andrew Jackson during his 1828 bid for the White House. His opponents called him a jackass, but instead of being upset, he used the donkey as his campaign emblem--and won. Although it had a much earlier start, this mascot was also popularized by Nast in the 1870s. (Fun fact: At one point during Jackson’s presidency, the national debt was under $34,000 dollars. Those were the days!)

Slang-wise, the traditional donkey’s years (a very long time) has been in use for donkey’s years (nearly a hundred of them), but the donkey has some other unusual associations. For example, in contemporary language, a donkey or donk can be a woman's large buttocks (or the woman herself), related to badonkadonk. (It’s worth remembering here that ass is a synonym for donkey.) A donk can also be a car, especially an old Chevy Impala, that is raised up to a ridiculous height with giant wheels. I found several folk etymologies claiming this is because the impala logo resembles a donkey, though to me it looks a lot like an impala. Perhaps the long ears?

By the way, I don’t mean to slight the Greens or Libertarians. The latter is represented by slang-challenged Lady Liberty; the former uses a sunflower, but doesn’t seem to have an animal mascot. According to the Green Party website, they had several such candidates in 2007, including the otter, the bee and the frog, but if there was a winner at their national meeting last summer, I couldn’t find it!

What’s New?
Translated quotes from the 1999 classic film Election, starring Reese Witherspoon as an overachieving high school Lolita. Also: The Money Quiz.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang by Grant Barrett.