The Grammarphobia Blog

A “talking points” memo

Q: I was a bit surprised to come across “talking points” in Sinclair Lewis’s 1917 novel The Job. I assumed the phrase was much more recent. It’s used in the sense of “talking points” for making a real-estate sale. Interested?

A: Yes, the phrase “talking points” has been around for quite a while. In fact, it appears twice in The Job. Earlier in the novel, a salesman refers to the “talking points for selling my trade.”

And Lewis also used it in his 1922 novel Babbitt in commenting on “the virtue of employing a broker who had Vision and who understood Talking Points.”

However, people were presenting their “talking points” in business and politics long before Lewis used the expression.

William Safire, in an On Language column in the New York Times in 2005, traced the phrase back to the Civil War era when it referred to items in a sales pitch.

In an 1862 issue of the Indiana Democrat, the Finkle and Lyon Sewing Machine Company plugged the quality of its products by saying: “We prefer such a reputation to one based on mere ‘talking points,’ as they are technically called in the trade.”

The same newspaper was cited by Safire for what appears to be the earliest published use of the phrase in a political sense.

In a 1901 issue, the Indiana Democrat quoted President Theodore Roosevelt as advising Republican leaders that “while reciprocity is excellent as ‘a talking point’ it will not ‘go’ with the Senate.”

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