Verbal energy: Surrogates and other placeholders

We know candidates can't be everywhere at once, but we could use a better term for their stand-ins on the campaign trail.

I'm always a little taken aback when a bit of what I think of media or political jargon enters the mainstream vocabulary – especially when it has somewhat of a negative overtone.

Several election cycles ago, for instance, everybody learned what a "sound bite" was. Now a skillfully captured bit of audio really can tell a story in eight seconds. But there's a reason everyone learned the term "sound bite" during the presidential elections of the late 20th century, and not, say, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and it's not just because of technology.

"Sound bite" was one of the vocabulary words for a civics lesson about disengaged voters, candidates dumbing themselves down for the masses, and broadcasters looking to tell their stories in a form that would work in the time between commercials.

That was then; this is now. In the current political season I've noticed the odd term surrogate. It's used to mean "the person who is there when the candidate can't be." It's obvious that the candidates can probably all use as many surrogates as they can find.

But I'm trying to figure out why it seems such a peculiar word choice. Surrogate means essentially "substitute." It derives from a Latin verb that means "to elect as a substitute." It's not a term with any emotive resonance – nor is substitute, for that matter. A lot of us first learned that word at school. Substitute teachers were typically not the ones with whom we had our academic breakthrough moments. "Accept no substitutes" is a well-established catchphrase.

"Sub" means "under," as in submarine, under the sea. But it figures in our words for a number of negative concepts - subversion, subterfuge, and surreptitious. This last term (whose "sur" was originally "sub") refers to "that which is snatched secretly."

Surrogate last popped into general public discourse during the 1980s in the context of surrogate motherhood – the idea of a woman carrying a child for parents unable to manage this on their own. (I'm condensing greatly here.) When I Googled the rather Dickensian-sounding Surrogate's Court in New York City, which handles cases involving estates and probate, as well as some adoption cases, I found some wonderful pictures of a Beaux-Arts building – and a lot of Google ads promising to connect me with surrogate mothers.

Hmm. What candidate would use this term with reference to his or her own trusted colleagues? ("I can't make it to Philadelphia tomorrow so I'll send Bill as my surrogate"? I don't think so.)

So what other words might do the job? How about lieutenant?

My dad was a proud son of the Land of Lincoln but also a big admirer of Gen. Robert E. Lee. On the bookshelf in the family room, which we passed often, there stood an edition of Douglas Southall Freeman's Civil War history, "Lee's Lieutenants." Eventually I realized that the "lieutenants" were actually generals.

We know lieutenant as a military rank and a rather junior one at that, but its literal meaning is "placeholder." Lieu means "place" in French; "in lieu of" is another way to say "instead of." A tenant is a "holder" of a property in consideration of payment to the owner.

Deputy is another possibility: "one given the full power of an officer without holding the office." Some countries call their members of parliament "deputies," but to Americans, that may suggest Barney Fife too strongly.

Then there's henchman. If it were possible for a word to have a five o'clock shadow, henchman would be it. In one of its earlier meanings, it would have been arguably exactly the word we're looking for here. But has it gone down-market over the centuries. It started out in the 15th century meaning "a squire or page to a person of high rank," and eventually morphed into "a trusted follower: a right-hand man." Its contemporary meaning is more "a member of a gang."

No wonder we're hearing so much about "surrogates," instead.

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