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Verbal Energy

Spikes in the price of other kinds of oil

A look at oil metaphors in the lexicon of political put-downs – and food.

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    A salesperson looks out of her fashion accessories shop near Qianmen Street, a popular tourist spot, in Beijing. Cheap oil is wreaking havoc and causing uncertainty for some governments and businesses while creating financial windfalls for others.
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This has been an extraordinary year in American politics: There, was that circumspect enough?

But without an election campaign going on in the United States, we might focus more on turmoil in the financial markets. Oil prices have caused much of it. Low oil prices are seen as a good thing, until they are not, when they become a sign of slower growth in China. Then after oil prices have “spiked” back “up” – somewhat – the capital markets do their happy dance again.

There have been spikes in the markets for various kinds of rhetorical oil as well, as commentators have reached for metaphors to describe politicians they don’t like.

Merriam-Webster reported a spike in look-ups for oleaginous last month after New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of one of the presidential candidates, “His rhetorical style will come across to young and independent voters as smarmy and oleaginous.”

M-W defines the word as meaning, first, “resembling or having the properties of oil,” and secondly as “marked by an offensively ingratiating manner or quality.”

An “ingratiating” manner isn’t supposed to offend – it’s “capable of winning favor,” as in “an ingratiating smile,” to borrow an example from WordNet. But ingratiating has also come to mean “calculated to please or gain favor,” and the M-W definition of oleaginous relies on this second sense: The calculation offends.

As there are many types and grades of petroleum, so there are many oil metaphors in political discourse.

Slick goes back centuries. It’s etymologically about smoothness rather than oil. But the word has long associations with oil – it’s been used in the sense of “oil slick” since 1849, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. And slick has been applied to enough politicians that Wikipedia has a “Slick Willie” disambiguation page.

Then there’s smarmy. M-W notes, “Something smarmy will often ooze with self-satisfaction and insincerity. Much like its synonyms unctuous and slick, smarmy has a history that starts with a meaning of literal slipperiness or oiliness.” And note that someone peddling useless goods or, more likely today, in the knowledge economy, useless advice is a “snake oil salesman,” and not, say, a “snake powder salesman.”

Unctuous has a particular connection to false piety. Vocabulary.com comments that it derives from a Latin word meaning “anointed with oil” – a reference to a religious rite.

A Google News search for unctuous reveals the word in surprisingly active use in food writing as well as politics. A gastronome in Chicago rhapsodizing about mascarpone, for instance, calls it “buttery-rich, soft and beautifully unctuous.”

Such usage has prompted a cri de coeur from a Huffington Post writer who checked the M-W definition and observed of unctuous, “To us, it looks like it originates in tricky, slimy and gross.... Let’s please all work together to find a replacement. And in the meantime, leave our sea urchin and soft boiled eggs out of it, thank you very much.”

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