Verbal Energy

The president and the carnival barker

The Monitor's language columnist looks at tout, a useful word with an unsavory background.

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Quick, what does the president of the United States have in common with a carnival barker?

Answer: They both tout things – the barker at the entrance to a tent, the president on scene where he is trying to make news, or in some cases to distract attention from other items on the public agenda that aren't moving in the way the White House would wish. (This is a nonpartisan, equal-opportunity observation.)

A recent check of news headlines turned up these examples: Along with "Obama touts success of GM, Chrysler bailouts," we have "Obama touts education reforms," "Obama touts Iraq withdrawal," and "Obama touts 'progress' as he urges greater focus on economy."

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But tout – let's be upfront about it – does not have a distinguished background. If tout were a child, you might hesitate to let him or her have a play date with your child.

Around 1700, tout was slang used among thieves to mean keeping an eye out or serving as a lookout. A couple of centuries later, tout was established as a transitive verb meaning "to praise highly." But especially as a noun, tout remains in dubious company.

Taxi touts are those mumbling men who float along on the platforms of train stations and at the baggage claim areas of airports, muttering "taxi, taxi" to no one in particular until they are suddenly talking to you.

One general definition of tout is "one who solicits customers brazenly or persistently." This covers, among others, ticket scalpers, those who sell information on racehorses to "guide" those placing bets, and those who push sales of securities without revealing to "clients" that they're being paid to do so.

If that doesn't make you think twice about "touting" anything, there's this: In Scotland and Ireland, tout is slang for a police informer.

But after all, tout is only one syllable, and only four letters, two of them "t." It takes up almost no space at all in a line of type. Some dictionaries may mark tout meaning "praise" as "informal" usage – as Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, does. But it's not slang. Can we realistically expect headline writers to reject a serviceable verb like this?

Probably not – especially when it refers to an activity that is part and parcel of political leadership. Leaders go out before the people to see and be seen, and talk up their ideas, make their case. Think of Lincoln meeting with Civil War soldiers – and their mothers. Think of FDR's "fireside chats."

Theodore Roosevelt's concept of the presidency as a "bully pulpit" suggests another possible source of metaphor.

Bully itself has a rather peculiar history. In the early 16th century it referred to a sweetheart of either sex. Over the following century, though, it went steadily down market and began to refer to a ruffian or harasser of the weak. As an adjective, though, bully retained its earlier positive sense, as in "bully for you," and that's how TR used it.

As for the use of "pulpit" to mean a significant public platform: It might be argued that Roosevelt lived in the twilight years of a period in which the clergy were leading opinionmakers within society. Had he lived in our age, would TR have referred to the White House as the ultimate talk show?

Tout may not sound very presidential. But it may be just about the best word we've got for the job.

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