Names checked, names dropped

A new phrase seems to be catching on for an old idea.

Here's a dispatch from the Department of "Don't We Already Have a Word for That?" A few weeks ago I was looking online for information about candidates running for City Council from my district. I ran across an article that mentioned that one of them was so liberal he would "never get the Russian vote." ("The Russian vote," in my neck of the woods, refers to the immigrant inhabitants of a particular nursing home who vote by the bus load and generally serve as the 800-pound gorilla of local politics.) The article went on to say that the most conservative candidate in the race had therefore "name-checked his old boss, a social conservative who was beloved by the Russians."

" 'Name-checked?' Huh?" as we amateur lexicographers sometimes say.

Name checking at first seemed like a close cousin to fact checking, as at a publication. And silly me, "name checking" also makes me think of somebody with a clipboard checking off names as people get back onto the tour-group bus to return to the hotel after the all-day excursion., a good place to make quick comparisons of the definitions of a word in several dictionaries at once, knew nothing of name-checked when I looked it up, but humored me with the suggestion, "If you're sure it's a word, try doing a general web search."

The larger Web does indeed know about this one: 127,000 hits, though I found only 30 when I checked Google News, which tends to search more professionally edited Web pages. All this suggests that it's a newish phrase in fairly wide use but not always getting past the gatekeepers of language.

Name checking seems to be a sort of variant of name dropping, which goes back to the middle of the last century. The San Francisco Examiner had a reference to "Our newest menace, the name dropper" in 1947, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But name droppers seem generally to be people who have more or less arrived, who drop names to impress those down below them. Name-checking, on the other hand, seems upward oriented. The conservative candidate offers up his connection with his former boss as a credential to help him win the Russian vote.

Urban Dictionary, an online guide to slang, anchors name check in the realm of pop music. British sources use the term in other fields, notably politics and sports. One of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's successors as Conservative Party leader "name-checked her an astonishing EIGHT times in his speech" at a recent party conference, according to the Daily Mirror.

A verb the writer could have used instead is invoke. Often associated with deity or ghosts, it means essentially "to call upon" someone, as for confirmation, authority, or such like. The Mirror writer could have had the speaker "invoke" the name of Baroness Thatcher.

And then there's plug, in the sense of "a piece of favorable publicity or a favorable mention," as Merriam-Webster Online puts it. Name-check seems to be equivalent to plug sometimes. As I trolled through the Web, I ran across this bit of exuberance on the Wired news blog network: "I was totally engrossed in an episode ... [of a TV series when Janeane] Garofalo name-checked Wired favorite Brian K. Vaughan's graphic novel series Y: The Last Man." It was clear from context that she was doing him a favor, not hoping he would do her one.

Name-checking also refers to mentions of brand names in the lyrics of hip-hop numbers. It's a form of product placement, and it is rumored that money sometimes changes hands. (I'm shocked, shocked.)

Do we need another word for name dropping? Some people evidently think we do. There's a compactness in this construction, "He name-checked his old boss." It works at least as well as "He executive-produced the last five episodes of that show." But to say, "He name-dropped his old boss," sounds too much like "he drop-kicked him." And so we'll drop that here.

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