Politics' Very Snappy 'Comeback'

Sen. John McCain, just one of many Comeback Kids in this campaign season.
Sen. John McCain, just one of many Comeback Kids in this campaign season. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Attention, presidential candidates!

Raise your hand if you have not yet had a comeback this campaign.

Anyone? Anyone?

Mike Huckabee had one on Tuesday, said CNN and other news outlets yesterday. Robert Novak in the Chicago Sun-Times says Huckabee's comeback occurred after he was "given up for dead" following a string of losses. But, hoo boy, he's back now, and so is John McCain, whose campaign the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday quoted someone as saying is "the greatest comeback since Lazarus." Radio stations in McCain's home state of Arizona went the patriotic rather than biblical route: One called his string of victories "one of the greatest political comebacks in American history."

Meanwhile, back on CNN, John King speculated about Mitt Romney's "comeback strategy," while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have come back so many times they're liable to run into themselves in the comeback revolving door.

As the election progresses, it's quickly becoming clear that the real comeback star is the word itself.

Comeback Kid and Comeback Queen have both been on heavy rotation; the word has also been bolstered by a support staff consisting of Defiant, Remarkable and Astonishing.

Comeback has flagged at times, replaced by Implode (see: Rudy Giuliani) or Collapse (see: Fred Thompson). But this week it is again going strong.

All hail the comeback of Comeback.

Comeback, meaning "a reinstatement in a position of authority or power," is said to have entered the English language in 1908, making this year the poignant 100th birthday of the term.

Unusually, it is a word of American origin. In other countries, presumably, people just lingered, despondent, unable to come anywhere resembling back.

Let's go to our panel of pundit linguists:

"The last election word to have this type of comeback was 'chad,' " says Erin McKean, editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly. Chad was an arcane term that had virtually disappeared from lexicography only to become a celebrated household word in 2000.

Grant Barrett, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, is less impressed. "There is no statistical evidence to support" Comeback's comeback, he says. In fact, "It seems there's always somebody who has a comeback . . . or an attempted comeback, or a failed comeback."

McKean concedes: "We do like to see patterns; whether they're real or not is sometimes hard to find out. We like to impose stronger narratives than have actually happened."

There you have it.

Next up: Comeback will prepare for a face-off against Resurrection, which suddenly seems to be collecting more delegates.

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