To consider the question, I dipped into Rosemarie Ostler’s new book, ”Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics,” out next month from Perigee (paper, $13.95).

The book isn’t just a compendium of vile barbs but rather a history of unattractive political discourse. Ostler gives us the good lines but also puts them in historical context and digs out fascinating bits about their origins.

So let’s start with a phrase or two that may be freshest in our minds. Who can forget the stink over “lipstick on a pig.” Sarah Palin started it rolling in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention when she said the main difference between a hockey mom like her and a pit bull was lipstick. Candidate Obama offered a few days later that: “You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig,” and added “You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still gonna stink.” He then got blasted for suggesting that Palin was a pig.

Ostler teaches us that the expression “lipstick on a pig,” which means dressing up an idea so it seems fresher than it is, was around in earlier versions since the eighteenth century. She refers to an 1887 book of proverbs that contains: “A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog.”

At the other end of American history, some of our most revered Founding Fathers came in for pretty awful abuse. Consider George Washington, the object of bitter political attacks. Anti-Federalist newspapers called him a horse beater, a gambler, a tyrannical monster, a most horrid swearer and blasphemer.

Good to know we’ve come a long way since then.


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