Sun, Apr 11, 2004 - Page 9 News List

`Wing nut:' do we need a new name to call extremists?

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Sometimes a new or offbeat word or phrase is used in common parlance for years before it sees print. Occasionally our computers' search engines, prowling the world of words for everything written or transcribed, can pick up an isolated usage.

So it is with "wing nut." I've heard this phrase spoken by political reporters for a couple of years but never saw it in print. Then in came an e-mail message from Mary Moliski, who describes herself as a "grandmother and word enthusiast" and sees this column in The Houston Chronicle: "Have you researched the word(s) `wing nut?' I came across it in a complicated article in Slate. I don't get the connection. Sure -- you take `nut,' a -- well, a screwball; and `wing' -- yeah, someone who wings it is usually not packed too tightly. Anyway, I thought maybe you could do some research."

I snap to attention when a reader (a) comes up with a specific citation, (b) makes an informed speculation about the meaning or derivation and (c) tosses in an offhand, colorful metaphor like "not packed too tightly," for someone who does not get both oars in the water.

First, to Moliski's citation: Four months ago, Slate headlined an article by Dahlia Lithwick The Wing Nut's Revenge: A Conspiracy Theorist Has His Day in Court. The subject was the oral argument in the Supreme Court about whether a person's right to privacy survives his death and attaches to his family.

One Allan Favish is derided as "an obsessive California conspiracy theorist who's been trying to get his hands on death-scene photographs of former Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster for almost a decade" to show that the government was negligent in its five investigations.

When Justice Antonin Scalia said to the Foster family's attorney, "What he and other conspiracy theorists would say is that the fact that there were five investigations only shows the extent of the conspiracy," the reporter characterized this as, "Scalia, never afraid to call a wing nut a wing nut." Slate's headline writer alertly chose Lithwick's lively phrase for the headline. Scalia joined the unanimous ruling protecting the family's privacy.

A fan club devoted to the TV series The West Wing calls itself the WingNuts.

The only other usage of the two-word derogation that comes to hand is from The Austin Chronicle. The reporter Michael King describes state Representative Wayne Christian as being Representative Arlene Wohlgemuth's "fellow wing nut." I think this is meant to suggest that the two political figures are strongly conservative.

Every mechanic and do-it-yourselfer reading this will say, "Wait -- what are they doing to our beloved wing nuts?" They know a "nut" to mean "a piece of metal with a threaded hole through it, enabling a screw to be inserted for fastening." Although most frequently shaped as a square or a hexagon, the nut sometimes has "wings" to provide a grip for easy twisting by thumb and forefinger.

Botanists will also be dismayed at the assumption by conspiratorial types of their beloved "Caucasian Wing-nut," a tree indigenous to Iran and Turkey whose fruity catkins have an ornamental effect.

In current political parlance, however, the word is now beginning its bid to replace the tiring "extremist." The wing of a political party or movement (derived from the flank of a military line, in turn taken from the paired appendages of a bird) most often represents its ideology undiluted by compromises designed to appeal to the center.

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