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The Obama Buzzword That Hit Pay Dirt

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

The image is positively retro.

Picture a sweaty brow, rolled-up sleeves, knotty forearms, calloused hands. Picture virgin land, just waiting to be transformed.

Shovel-ready land.

This is America on the eve of the Obama era.

Shovel-ready.

He keeps telling us so. On "Meet the Press," fill-in host Tom Brokaw wants to know how quickly Barack Obama can create jobs, and the president-elect promises to move fast. After all, he says, he's met with a bunch of governors "and all of them have projects that are shovel-ready."

Announcing his energy team, Obama beams about "shovel-ready projects all across the country." Unveiling his choice for education secretary, Obama plugs his plans "to start helping states and local governments with shovel-ready projects."

So many shovels.

All of them, apparently, quite ready.

But what the heck does this mean, and where does shovel-ready come from? Ah, this requires a word detective.

We place a call to Obama's transition flack. No response.

Conclusion: not answer-ready.

The phrase doesn't appear in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary. Dictionary.com is stumped, but suggests an alternative spelling: "shovelhead." The Oxford English Dictionary, final arbiter of all word arguments that it is, offers no shovel-ready listing, either.

Could this be a made-up word? If so, who made it up, and how did it end up in the mouth of the next leader of the free world?

Deeper digging is required.

Jeff Koenig, the senior product manager for long-handled tools at the Ames True Temper company in Camp Hill, Pa., takes a call. The company calls itself America's oldest shovel manufacturer, having produced its first in 1774. It also claims to be the world's largest shovel maker, churning out between 5 million and 7 million a year.

They must know something.

Koenig calls shovels the "bread and butter" of the construction industry and suggests "everything starts and stops with the shovel." He must have heard the phrase "shovel-ready," right?

"Not at all," he says, apparently having been too busy making shovels to listen to the president-elect's news conferences.

The search continues.

Obama's election opponent and secretary of state designee, Hillary Clinton, provides a clue. She invoked the shovel during a conference call, way back in November 2007. She's talking about 40 "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects "all set to go in New York."

Two days later, she's at it again, this time up in Albany, talking about speeding dollars to "shovel-ready projects in transit and transportation."

The search continues.

And . . . bingo!

We discover shovelready.com.

The Web site says it is maintained by the Upstate New York economic development arm of National Grid, an electric utility. Art Hamlin, the company's Upstate New York economic development director, is on the horn.

So, what about Obama and all this shovel-ready business?

"I laughed when I heard it on the radio this morning," Hamlin says. "It's very satisfying."

Hamlin says his company started throwing around the term back in the late 1990s. At the time, they were looking for ways to stimulate development of "brownfields," the abandoned and frequently contaminated industrial sites that were being cleaned up and made available for development.

Executives at the company, then called Niagara-Mohawk Power, figured entrepreneurs would be more likely to develop the brownfields if they knew in advance that the sites already had electrical service and gas and sewer lines, as well as preliminary environmental permits. But they needed a catchy way of saying that.

They came up with shovel-ready.

"It had a nice ring to it," Hamlin says.

Such a nice ring, in fact, that they decided to stake a claim. In 1998, the company bought the shovelready.com Internet domain name and even trademarked it.

Now, determining the exact origin of a word or phrase is an inexact science, and there's always a possibility that someone might have been using shovel-ready before Hamlin and his colleagues. But they have a pretty strong claim to the phrase's provenance.

Governors and economic development agencies use the phrase all the time now. It has even been modified -- a witness testifying at a House of Representatives hearing spoke of "shovel-readiness" in October. Since Obama's "Meet the Press" appearance, a string of governors, including Maryland's Martin O'Malley, have issued statements crowing about their shovel-ready projects.

Shovel-ready, in other words, has arrived.

Hamlin and his pals have watched all this with pride, saying "we feel it has its origins in Upstate New York."

But being a possible linguistic trend-setter hasn't made Hamlin and his colleagues get fancy.

Their phrase, he says, is nothing more than "a symbol of moving dirt."

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