[Ads-l] Precursors to "third rail of American politics."

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 17 19:11:38 UTC 2019

The expression, "third rail of American politics" was introduced into widespread use, and perhaps coined in that form, by an aide to Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil named Kirk O'Donnell.

William Saffire traced the origins of the expression in 2007.

In the late-1970s, there were several political examples of "third rail" from Boston, the hometown of both O'Neil and O'Donnell, that do not exactly match the now well-known idiom, but may be precursors.

Also, in the early 1900s, "third rail" was an adjective for dangerous, rotgut liquor.  To "kiss the third rail" appears to have been a slang euphemism for death in the 1920s, but I could not find very many examples in print.  That expression appears in one of the late-1970s examples of political "third rail" in Boston, so it may have persisted throughout the intervening half-century, even though it does not appear in print.

I put my findings in a blog post.

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

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