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shameless pleading


I don’t care for their music, but “Steely Dan” would be a great name for a candidate.

Dear Word Detective: Political commentary is rife with the phrase “rock-ribbed,” but it’s almost completely absent from the modern vocabulary otherwise. What gives, and how did the GOP get a monopoly on this evocative term? — Ben.

You’re right. A brief sojourn through a Google News search for the term produces dozens of examples of “rock-ribbed Republican,” and also a nearly equal incidence of “rock-ribbed conservative.” But “rock-ribbed Democrat” produces exactly five hits, and “rock-ribbed liberal” turned up nada. Totals for all of them are higher on the general web, with more than 5,400 hits for “rock-ribbed Republican,” but those are edged out by “rock-ribbed liberal” at more than 9,000. Many of the “liberal” sites, however, are clearly asserting themselves as “rock-ribbed” in response to perceived Republican/conservative hegemony over the term. Good luck with that.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first appearance of “rock-ribbed” in print was in 1776, which I suspect will strike some people as significant. The term itself, however, lacked its modern meaning; at that point it simply meant “Of a landscape: characterized or dominated by rock formations; rocky, craggy” (OED). Such vistas are often described as “forbidding” or “bleak” (“Nearer and nearer we drew to the rock-ribbed, ice-encompassed shore.” 1900).

By the late 19th century here in the US, however, we were using “rock-ribbed” to mean “uncompromising, unyielding, resolute,” by analogy to actual rocks, which are notably resistant to fads, panics, whims, or much of anything, really. As applied to individuals, the implication is that the person is not merely resolute, but so sturdy in moral fiber — ribs of rock, spine of steel — as to defy any challenge (“The rock-ribbed republican clergy men … waited on Mr. Blaine yesterday to assure him of their ‘loyalty’ and ‘allegiance’.” 1884).

As to how the Republican Party in the US cornered the “rock-ribbed” franchise (if they indeed have), I think several factors might be at work. One is that the metaphor lends itself more to a conservative ideology and a high value placed on tradition. Another is that a rocky landscape suggests a rural or western setting, also historically amenable to conservatism. And lastly, especially in the case of “rock-ribbed Republican,” there’s the simple, seductive alliteration of the phrase, certainly as opposed to “rock-ribbed Democrat,” which sounds like a tongue-twister. The role of the news media in promoting such catchy tropes, preferably alliterative, is also obvious, as evidenced by this 1950 quotation from the Manchester Guardian in the UK: “The dyed-in-the-wool Democrat can be fanatical in devotion to his party’s creed and traditions. So can the rock-ribbed Republican.”

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