Journalists in the media filing center watch a Republican primary debate in Houston, Texas. February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Richard Carson
Eliot Nelson is a reporter in the Huffington Post's Washington, D.C. bureau and editor of the HuffPost Hill newsletter. He is the author of "The Beltway Bible: A Totally Serious A-Z Guide to Our No-Good, Corrupt, Incompetent, Terrible, Depressing, and Sometimes Hilarious Government."

Though our capital is a city of familiar rhythms — the quadrennial inauguration, the monthly jobs report, the annual distribution of unwanted White House correspondents’ dinner swag — Washington is by no means static. The terms we use to describe our politics change as regularly as a president’s approval ratings. With that in mind, it’s worth updating the Washington lexicon ahead of the next administration:


Madame Tussauds Disorder, or MTD, is a condition in which politicians, pundits or journalists don’t remove their makeup after a TV “hit,” giving them the waxy, polyurethanic appearance of a Madame Tussauds statue. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, a lofty sense of self-worth, a near-constant need to know if anyone picked up their “hit” and the appearance of a walking, breathing cadaver.


In Washington, everyone.


Political version of yelling “fore!” after a wayward tee-off, screaming “timber!” while felling a tree or, perhaps most analogously, shouting “I’m going to stab you really hard!” before plunging a knife into someone’s abdomen.

Because political work is inherently adversarial, the standard practice among reporters, staffers, advocates, lobbyists and other political actors is to give a “heads up” before going ahead with a potentially unwelcome plan, thereby giving their counterparty the courtesy of some time to prepare. It allows the speaker to perpetrate some vicious act against his or her target while still maintaining a professional relationship, thanks to the observance of proper decorum.

“Heads up, I’m working on an article about your boss that says he’s been carrying on a three-year affair with a horse.”

“You’re putting us in a real bind here.”

“Just a warning.”

“Appreciate it.”


Award-winning 2002 account of Lyndon Johnson’s time in Congress by historian Robert Caro. “Master” is a sacred object among political bros, who uphold the history as a totem of yesteryear’s overly masculine, zero-sum, back-slapping brand of politics that Johnson — and, by extension, said political bros — understood deeply. The appeal of “Master” is as much about the content (which is truly impressive) as it is about letting people know that you’ve read it. It’s to wannabe political alpha males what “On the Road” is to moody college freshmen, what “Infinite Jest” is to men trying to impress women on the subway and what the Bible is to politicians.


The convening of experts in sofa chairs or on barstools to furrow their brows and prove how qualified they are to opine about emerging government transparency regimes in the Balkans.

Most panel titles follow a similar blueprint, featuring a catchy statement or question followed by a description of the event — something along the lines of “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey? Examining Knobs in the 21st Century” or “You Say, ‘Potato,’ I Say, ‘Where’s the Lactation Room?’ Updating OSHA Regulations for Today’s Working Parents.”

Friends in Washington invite you to their panels the way friends everywhere else invite you to their improv shows. Do you feel compelled to attend? Yes. Will you enjoy it? No. Will your friend not shut up about it on social media? Of course not.


A term of admiration applied, at one point or another, to virtually every white-collar professional in the Washington area. But unless Boz Scaggs has been loitering around the Commerce Department or the nation’s functionaries have taken to performing sold-out gigs at the Cow Palace, it’s unlikely that Washington is home to many individuals who could unironically pull off leather pants. Samples:

“You have to meet Tim, the head of digital outreach at MilkFart Strategies, he’s a total rock star.”

“Ohmigod, I’m so excited for my coffee with Ashley — she handles social media for the Association of American Orthodontists. She is a total ROCK. STAR.”

“Bro, I think you’ll really like Michael, he’s a real rock star in the renewable ham space.”


In Washington, everyone.


Because a large portion of Washington dealmaking emanates from the White House and the Capitol, politicos tend to congregate at the same dozen coffee shops near those spots for off-campus meetings, meaning half the patrons at said coffee shops are trying to look cool while waiting for someone they haven’t met before.

What results: a painful series of furtive glances and false-start conversations, and a heightened state of self-awareness. Key dance viewing locations include Cups & Company in the Russell Senate Office Building and Peet’s Coffee at 17th and Pennsylvania NW.


A pleasant-sounding term used to describe politicos’ job changes. “Transitioning” has the salubrious effect of making even the most ethically questionable career shifts sound as natural as the processional march of turtle hatchlings into the ocean. Each week, in internal memos and email tipsheets like Politico’s Playbook, hundreds of transitions are announced, often in sections titled, unimaginatively, “Transitions.” Spend enough time in Washington, and you start to get a feel for these things:

Transition: “Timothy Honeybottom, legislative director for Senator Poppycock, will join Purple Strategies as Senior Vice President for Communications.”

Translation: “The Honeybottoms just applied their oldest child to Sidwell Friends.”

Transition: “Amber Windpacker, Staff Director for Transportation Committee Chairman McNuts, is heading to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.”

Translation: “Amber Windpacker’s husband just took an advisory position on a presidential campaign and someone around here needs to pay the mortgage on their four-bedroom McLean house.”

Transition: “Aloysius Lovecraft, Majority Leader Birdstink’s Chief of Staff, will join CGA as President of their government affairs practice.”

Translation: “Aloysius Lovecraft is a greedy little miser.”

This story is adapted from the forthcoming “The Beltway Bible: A Totally Serious A-Z Guide to Our No-Good, Corrupt, Incompetent, Terrible, Depressing and Sometimes Hilarious Government.”