[Ads-l] History of "Bargaining Chip"

Thu Jul 7 19:59:27 EDT 2016

I took a look at the early history of "bargaining chip," which the OED has from 1965.  The origin of the term has long been a subject of controversy.

As the evidence below shows, the term was popularized by Ray Tucker, who was one of several writers for a "news behind the news" syndicated column called National Whirligig.  Tucker did not invent the term, which he saw in a memorandum in 1941 that may or may not have been the origin of the term.  The memo is not readily available, although it is possible that it exists in an archive somewhere.  Tucker understood a bargaining chip to be analogous to a poker chip, although it is not clear if the actual originator had this analogy in mind.  He used the term from time to time after his initial 1941 use.  All early references are to international relations.

The term first appears in various newspapers on Nov. 26, 1941, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  All uses are from Newspapers.com.  Interestingly, the story is about postwar plans even before the United States had determined to enter World War II.

"Formation of an Anglo-United States cartel to control the world's raw materials essential for warmaking has been advanced in Administration circles as an effective method of preserving permanent peace after the present conflict.  OPM experts on defense materials have prepared detailed memoranda for the White House and State Department.
. . . .
One memo on the admittedly "fantastic and complicated" problem warns that the United States must begin negotiation with London for such an agreement before Uncle Sam exhausts his Lend-Lease funds or enters the war more formally and actively.  Washington, it is pointed out, must overcome expected British opposition to this pooling arrangement while we have these "bargaining chips" in our hands."

Tucker used the term again in his column in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and various other newspapers on Sept. 18, 1942, in a discussion of an anti-inflationary bill, introduced by Senator Steagall, that also provided farmers with price parity protection.  This use also referred to an "ante," or the initial bet made in poker in order to participate in a game.

"He [sc. Roosevelt] has frequently promised that the United States will feed the hungry of the world after the armistice.  But, as Woodrow Wilson so sagely remarked many years ago, "You can't expect the farmer to grow food unless you pay for it."  In other words, there won't be enough wheat, meat, milk, etc., as bargaining chips at the peace table unless F.D.R. agrees to the "ante" set by Mr. Steagall et al."

The next use of the term is in a discussion of American warships on June 4, 1945, and I again look to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, although the column was also run in other newspapers:

"President Truman apparently relies on this superiority to keep other nations from resorting to warfare.  He has approved a new building program that will increase the number of dreadnoughts, cruisers and, what is more important, aircraft carriers.
It is clear that these additional vessels are not needed for the defeat of Japan.  So they can be classed as further insurance against another global conflict, or as bargaining chips at the final peace table."

Tucker used the term in his column again the very next day, on June 5, 1945 (again quoting the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, though it ran also in other newspapers):

"Stalin may eventually use his power in this area [sc. eastern Europe and the Balkans] as a bargaining chip in future deals with the United States."

The first example I see that is not from Ray Tucker is an unsigned editorial in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, June 16, 1949 (i.e., eight years after Tucker first used the term):

"But the unfortunate truth is that the quarreling of the Big Four does help Germany, and that she stands to gain in influence and bargaining chips whether Russia or the United States eventually holds the stronger hand."  

Tucker was not done with the term, and he used it again in his column (which at this juncture was called International Whirligig), published in various newspapers on Mar. 12 and 13, 1960.  (There had been by this time several other non-Tucker uses, which I don't quote.)  I don't see it in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, so I quote the Bridgeport (Conn.) Post.

"The Europeans are also concerned over serious, nonpartisan charges that the Administration has permitted its military establishment to become inferior to Soviet might.  Although they cannot express their suspicions openly during the "great debate" on Capitol Hill, they recognize that any deterioration of our deterrent power, real or fancied, will deprive the West of any bargaining chips at Geneva."

John Baker

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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