Verbing the bumpkin

From the NYT Magazine on Sunday the 2nd, a piece, “The Bumpkinification of the Midterm Election” by Mark Leibovich, in which bumpkin ‘an awkward fellow, a clown’ is verbed, by -ify in the title, by -ize in the body of the piece, and by zero conversion (or direct verbing) as well. The piece is also intriguing for its reporting on the rhetoric of politics.

Background on bumpkin, as defined above in OED2. The etymology isn’t at all clear, but the word dates from the 16th century; the first cite is from 1570:

P. Levens Manipulus Vocabulorum sig. Liiv/2,   A Bunkin, felow, batauus, strigo.

The OED‘s speculations on possible etymologies:

The curious gloss in the first quot. suggests that bunkin (presumably the same word) was a humorous appellation for a Dutchman, and meant a man with short stumpy figure. The word may be < Dutch boomken ‘little tree’ (Hexham); compare bumkin [‘short boom projecting from each bow of a ship’]. It may however be < Middle Dutch bommekijn ‘little barrel’, or < bum [‘the buttocks’] + -kin suffix.

Back to bumpkinification and its kin. From the Leibovich piece, with the relevant lexical items in boldface:

Joni Ernst, the Iowa state senator and Iraq War veteran, was standing in a barn in a purple flannel shirt and an unzipped vest. Beside her, various swine burrowed in the hog lot; two small pigs spooned; there was copious squealing. When Ernst, who grew up on a farm castrating hogs, opened her mouth to speak, she drew the inevitable connection between her upbringing and her current role as a Republican candidate for the United States Senate. “When I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” Ernst said, smiling. Title cards reinforced her credentials. (“Joni Ernst: Mother. Soldier. Conservative.”) “I’m Joni Ernst, and I approve this message because Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make ‘em squeal.”

The 30-second spot, titled “Squeal,” was part of a trilogy of ads for the candidate released earlier this year. In another, Ernst, enrobed in a biker jacket, rides a Harley-Davidson to a gun range. (“Joni Ernst: Set Sights on Obamacare”). In a third, titled “Biscuits,” the camera focuses on a man’s hands as they add butter to flour and use molds to cut circles. “When I was working fast food, I learned the key to a great biscuit is lots of fat,” Ernst tells the camera. “Problem is, Washington thinks the same thing about our budget.”

… As we have often been reminded, this was supposed to be a very important election cycle. The Republicans’ hopes of retaking the Senate could easily hinge on squeaker races like Ernst’s in Iowa. This, along with the possibility of padding their majority in the House, would be a significant development for the nation, just as the issues loom huge, complex and ISIS-Ebola scary. And yet countless candidates seem determined to tout their fitness for these enormous challenges by trying to out-bumpkin one another. This spring, Ernst’s opponent, Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman, assured voters that he “grew up doing farm jobs and working a grain elevator.”

There is, of course, a delicate art to bumpkinizing. Republicans, in particular, have been burned in recent Senate elections by nominating candidates — Christine O’Donnell, for instance, or Todd Akin — who turned out to be too bumpkin for their own good and imploded in winnable races.

… Skilled politicians have a proud tradition of conveying utter contempt for their profession, especially when they’re running to keep their jobs. This is, to some degree, rooted in our history… The historian Garry Wills has referred to this entrenched American tendency as “the glorification of the amateur and contempt for the professional.”

… The apotheosis of the modern bumpkin mode has been embodied by Sarah Palin, who nearly found herself one 72-year-old heartbeat from our highest national office.

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