The Grammarphobia Blog

Code words and politics

Q: Do you have any insight into the saying “invest is a code word for spend”? How has it been so rapidly placed in the brains of so many people? Is Frank Luntz lurking? Was it created as a kind of poison pill in advance of President Obama’s State of the Union speech?

A: We checked out various combinations of “spend” (or “spending”) + “code word” (or “codeword”) + “invest” (or “investing” or “investment”) and got millions of hits on Google.

Although many of the hits appeared just before or after the  president’s Jan. 25 State of the Union Address (in which he called for investing in the future), the saying originally showed up long before that 2011 speech.

A cursory Google search came up with a version of the expression in a July 11, 1988, Time magazine article that appeared the year Mr. Obama entered law school.

In commenting on Michael Dukakis’s presidential platform, Walter Shapiro and Michael Duffy wrote in Time: “Read invest as the new Democratic code word for spend.”

Did the political consultant, pollster, and self-described word doctor Frank Luntz have anything to do with it? Not as far as we can tell.

The use of the phrase “code word” in the sense of a secret word has been around since the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED doesn’t mention the newer sense we’re discussing, but both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) include euphemism as a meaning of “code word.”

For an example of the usage, American Heritage cites the New Republic: “The Democrats’ ‘populism’ is a code word for bigger farm subsidies and protectionism.”

We don’t know exactly when this usage first showed up, but it appears to go back at least as far as the 1960s.

A June 27, 1969, column by C. L. Sulzberger in the New York Times, for example, says, “Vietnam has become a code word for everything that is wrong or vulnerable in American life.”

Update: After this entry was posted, we got this email from Walter Shapiro, the former Time magazine writer mentioned above:

“Just a brief note to say that I wrote the 1988 Time magazine story that called ‘invest’ the new Democratic code word for ‘spend.’ (My then-colleague Michael Duffy provided the reporting in that old-fashioned news-magazine division of responsibility).

“While my precise memory has, of course, faded with the years, I am pretty certain that this was my observation based on the prevalence of the word ‘invest’ in Democratic rhetoric coming out of the Reagan years. This linguistic sleight-of-hand by the Democrats was an obvious response to the way that Ronald Reagan had demonized government spending. And, as a long-time political reporter (and Jimmy Carter speechwriter), I can testify that political consultants in both parties were tinkering with rhetoric before Frank Luntz was born.”

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