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Thu, Jan 06, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Figures of speech fly in US political campaigns

Are you `comfortable in your own skin'? Are you an `alpha male'? Do you ever `fly off the handle'? A New York Times language maven explains it all for you so that you can get a handle on the jargon now in the air

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"Comfortable in his skin" was identified by a reader as "the favorite phrase of admirers of ... former Senator Bill Bradley." It appeared in an article in Newsweek: "He came off as a relaxed public man comfortable in his own skin," and another US reporter used it a month later on TV: "The fact that he's more comfortable in his own skin is what makes him appealing."

The phrase's use in US politics first appeared in 1988, about Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis from Massachusetts: "Ironically it is the uptight, humorless Dukakis who seems most comfortable in his own skin, to cite the official standard of campaign-trail media psychologists."

It is also translated as comfortable inside his skin and comes from the French "etre bien dans sa peau." The meaning of the Gallic trope is "at peace with oneself," or in current political terminology, "the balanced, centered state of being that comes when the person is not in conflict with the persona." (To be inside someone else's skin, which never quite fits, is presumably uncomfortable.)

Let's look at another US power term: alpha male. Alpha male, I am informed by a reader of this column, is a coinage of Rudolph Schenkel, who studied dominance hierarchies among captive wolves (no kin to the Gore consultant) at the zoo in Basel, Switzerland, in the 1930s. It is the term now used for "top dog," employed by ethologists studying the micturition and mating habits of predatory canids. Among wolves, it seems that only the alpha males breed. We are now off on a tangent.

Back to the trope-a-dope of current American politics. The knock being put on US Senator John McCain as he creeps up on Texas Governor George W. Bush in the polls is that he conceals a hot temper. "Most Americans do not expect their presidents to be Caspar Milquetoasts," the pollster Whit Ayres said, referring to the wimpish cartoon character created by Harold Tucker Webster in 1924, but "they also don't want him flying off the handle at inopportune times.''

To fly off the handle was first recorded in 1843 by the Canadian Thomas Haliburton, author of a series of satires on a too-shrewd Yankee named Sam Slick.

"You never see such a crotchical old critter as he is," he quoted a character in a novel. "He flies right off the handle for nothing." The trope, or figure of speech, is that of the head of an ax becoming detached from its handle during a hard swing.

Texas Governor George W. Bush has been attacked for his lack of academic achievement in college.

"According to the Yale document," wrote Jane Mayer and Alexandra Robbins in The New Yorker recently, citing school records, "Bush was a C student. (This, of course, was in a preinflationary time, the waning era of the gentleman's C.)

Bush, in self-deprecation, earlier used the phrase, saying, "That's the difference between a Phi Beta Kappa and a gentleman's C."

Dictionaries are no help in tracking down that phrase. Earliest use I can find is in a 1959 Journal of Negro Education about bright students "poorly motivated, content to be a `gentleman's C.'" The quotation marks indicate earlier usage.

In 1973, Richard Merelman wrote in the University of Texas' Journal of Politics, "Although such ascriptive practices as the gentleman's C are now dying out, the antiquated image of education they reflect -- a view that education should legitimize a social aristocracy by providing it with marks of status -- remains embedded in the schools."

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