Amer. Dialect Soc. Word of the Year Announced

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sat Jan 8 04:48:46 UTC 2005

On Fri, 7 Jan 2005 22:05:08 -0500, Grant Barrett
<gbarrett at WORLDNEWYORK.ORG> wrote:

>The American Dialect Society has just finished its vote for the 2004
>Words of the Year. The overall Words of the Year were "red state, blue
>state, and purple state," which  together represent the American
>political map.

Interesting choice!  "Purple state" is of course the one that's new to
2004.  Some thoughts on the origins of "red state"/"blue state"...

When Bill Safire discussed "red" and "blue" states in his Oct. 3, 2004 "On
Language" column, he wrote: "Perhaps because color television was not
universal until a generation ago, electoral maps were not consistent until
the campaign of the first President Bush against Bill Clinton."  Though
the usage of "red state" and "blue state" was first popularized in 1992,
the blue/red color-coding on electoral maps has been used at least since
1908.  In July of that year, the Washington Post printed a color
supplement with a map indicating Republican-leaning states as red and
Democratic-leaning states as blue.  Here is the Post's announcement:

    The Post to Issue a Folder Supplement Next Sunday.
    Democratic, Republican, and Doubtful States, as Now
    Estimated, to Be Designated by Different Colors.
    Washington Post, Jul 22, 1908
    The States conceded by the best judges to be Republican
    are printed in red, the Democratic in blue, and the
    doubtfuls in yellow.  The Territories, which have no
    presidential vote, are shown in green.

It's conceivable that the Post's electoral map helped to firm up the
association of Republicans with "red" and Democrats with "blue".  Before
that time, there was evidently some confusion over color-coding the
parties.  For the 1900 general election, the Chicago Tribune, then a
Republican organ, made plans to signal returns on election night by
setting off colored fireworks (or "bombs", as they were called) that would
be visible around the city.  Republican wins would be signaled by blue
bombs and Democratic wins by red bombs.  But in the Nov. 6, 1900 edition,
the Tribune published an item saying that they were abandoning these
plans.  An unnamed Democratic newspaper (most likely the Chicago Times,
the Tribune's Democratic rival) had announced it would signal Republican
wins with red bombs and Democratic returns with blue bombs.  The Tribune
decided to drop the plan entirely for color-coded fireworks to avoid
confusing Chicagoans.

In this case it seems that each party organ wanted to claim to be "blue"
and paint the other party as "red".  I would conjecture that the Tribune
was following contemporary European usage ("blue" = right-leaning, "red" =
left-leaning).  But the paper's Democratic rivals wanted to appropriate
the positive connotations of "blue" (as in "true-blue") for the Democrats,
at a time when the color red was becoming associated with revolutionaries
and anarchists.  By embracing the color blue, Democrats may have been able
to distance themselves from the "reds" of the day.

--Ben Zimmer

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