In the powerful Ways and Means Committee of the US House of Representatives (the adjective powerful has long been fused to the committee name), a memorable imbroglio recently shocked the more sensitive denizens of the people's House. "It wasn't a day in which the dialogue amongst us was equal to the challenge of governance," said Representative Nancy Johnson, a Republican. Students of the political language refer to it as "the fruitcake episode."
The Democrats on the committee had staged a walkout to protest a too-speedy markup of a pension bill, leaving behind one member -- Pete Stark, who is given to colorful language -- to delay proceedings. When Stark grew agitated at a ruling by the chairman, Representative Scott McInnis, a Republican, muttered, "Shut up."
This provoked an explosion from the 71-year-old Stark: "Oh, you think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp?" The official transcript continues: "Come over here and make me. I dare you. You little fruitcake." In case his distinguished colleague had not been paying attention, Stark added, "I said you are a fruitcake."
The police were summoned but wanted no part of the brouhaha; reporters delightedly appeared; and lexicographers wondered which insult was the more stinging -- wimp or fruitcake?
Wimp, from the verb whimper, and influenced by the blimplike, mild-mannered cartoon character Wimpy, freeloader friend of Popeye the Sailor, means "a spineless, gutless, harmless person." It was taken to be an infuriating insult when hurled at President Bush the Elder more than a decade ago but has since lost much of its zip.
Fruitcake, however, is a double-edged sword. In its first sense of "crazy," it was thrust forcefully into the language by the gangster Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik in 1939, when his longtime mob boss, Alphonse Capone, was released from Alcatraz Penitentiary. Asked if the deranged Capone would reassume control of the Chicago mob, Guzik replied sadly, "Al is nuttier than a fruitcake."
The gangster's metaphor was not original. Nuts and nutty, originally meaning "crazy for," in the sense of "amorous about," had been in use in Britain since at least 1812. As it traveled to the US, the meaning narrowed to the plain "crazy," a mental stage beyond "eccentric." Then, Eugene O'Neill, in his 1914 play, The Movie Man, coined a memorable simile: "We sure are as nutty as a fruitcake or we wouldn't be here."
A second slang sense of fruitcake appeared in the 20th century, however: First fruit, and by 1960 fruitcake, meant "an effeminate male homosexual." It continues to have this meaning today, though the close association with nuttiness (by O'Neill via Guzik) gives fruitcake a primary slang meaning of "crazy; off his rocker." When used in a congressional colloquy, as we have just seen, the term's double sense heightens the offense.
"He's a rather determined dead-ender type," said Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar in November 2001. "He just doesn't feel to me like the surrendering type." Asked a few months later if he meant that ousted Afghans would fight to the death, he replied, "We won't know that until they're dead."
The same term came in handy at the end of the major combat in Iraq. "Where pockets of dead-enders are trying to reconstitute," the Pentagon chief said, the Army was "rooting them out." But as American casualties continued through the summer, General John Abizaid, the Arabic-speaking new head of the US Central Command, said the attackers were part of a "classical guerrilla-type war situation." That suggested a continuance of low-level combat rather than the petering-out of resistance.