The days following the election, I remember receiving an email from Ms. magazine reminding us that electing a new U.S. president did not mean the hard work of fighting for, securing, and ensuring justice for all was done. In it, the newsletter specifically warned that the upcoming “lame duck” period of the presidency was going to be dangerous for women’s rights and equality in general (although not the original newsletter, this article by Ms. writer’s Seema Mohapatra touches on similar themes).
The sentence in which it appeared did not provide the context needed for my brain to put the pieces together, either, so I turned to the good old internet.
According to Etymonline.com, “lame duck” as used in a political context began in 1863, with a popular historical documentation attributed to President Abraham Lincoln in 1878. Before that, “lame duck” was used as Stock Exchange jargon, referring to a person who has defaulted on their debts (just say “defaulter!”). And before either of these connotations, the phrase was used to refer to “any disabled person or thing,” which is just plain messed up and the main reason why we should leave the term behind and opt for a new descriptor.
The goal is to find something more explicit (as in, the meaning is clear) and not ableist, that does not support a system of power which values temporarily able-bodied people over fellow disabled folks . Since the term “lame” is disparaging, targets a particular social group, and I don’t feel particularly comfortable using it, I will make sure to employ quotations.
Hopefully a brief explanation about why the word “lame” is insensitive when used as a form of disparagement will help you understand why I have made this decision. The blog Learn From Autistics has a very useful article called “Common Ableist Terms You Might Be Using” which compiles a list of the ableist slurs many of us throw around in our day-to-day language (and might want to consider using other, usually more accurate, words instead!).
“Lame–This term is used to describe something as feeble or unconvincing, a negative definition originating from the term referring to someone who cannot walk or has a leg or foot injury. Again, usage of this term suggests lameness is negative and equates physical disability with unconvincing rhetoric.”
Comparable terms which can be descriptive of a state of being, but are often appropriated in a derogatory manner, especially by people who are relatively privileged and outside the communities for which the terms originated are “queer,” “gay,” “black” (maybe this is just me, but I take offense when “black” is used as a substitute for immorality, evil, or shame), “crazy,” etc. Hopefully these comparisons help put this L word into perspective.
Now, returning to the political idiom, we can see how the former degrading usage of the word “lame” fuels our understanding and usage of the phrase “lame duck.” Just look at how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it:
“lame duck , noun
1: one that is weak or that falls behind in ability or achievement especially, chiefly British : an ailing company
2: an elected official or group continuing to hold political office during the period between the election and the inauguration of a successor
3: one whose position or term of office will soon end”
While the political definitions—meanings two and three—do not directly reference weakness or disability, these meanings evolved to carry the same connotations which equate weakness and disability with something negative.
Megan Garber, author of The Atlantic article “A Better Way to Say ‘Lame Duck,’” suggests we adopt the term Zero Fucks to refer to the November/December period right before the presidential power is transferred. Garber notes that media took to using this term to describe President Barack Obama’s last months in his second term:
“… ‘Lame duck,’… is a terrible term. It is jargon-y. It is partisan. It is poorly descriptive. It is offensive to both humans and, we can reasonably assume, the entire waterfowl community.
More than anything, though, ‘lame duck’ is often simply inaccurate: The golden years of a presidency can be, for better or for worse, intensely productive ones—not just despite a president’s ability to extricate himself from standard political pageantries, but because of it. As my colleague David Graham noted, watching this year’s State of the Union, ‘None of the policy goals Obama enunciated would suggest a president with narrowing horizons.’ And, indeed, Obama, in the speech, displayed an easy confidence you could fairly describe as swagger.”
While pointing out the insensitivity of “lame duck,” Garber’s primary argument is that the connotations of irretrievable loss and useleness meant to be problematically conveyed is not an accurate characterization of how every president—if any—experiences their final term. The period previously called “lame duck” sessions would be called “Zero or No Fucks period.”
“…[O]bservers of Obama have recently embraced another, better—if more profane—description of the presidential twilight: the “Zero Fucks” phase. As in, the president has zero fucks left to give. Really just none. “No fucks here, folks.” Having dispensed with the permanent campaign, our 44th president can sit back and, if not relax, at least craft his legacy in a manner that is (relatively) free of political concern.”
If you aren’t a fan of the profane, or think that “zero fucks” is not a time-specific quality of the president preceding Biden/Harris (maybe even entirely inaccurate, as the President seems to still be very invested in keeping his unrenewed position), perhaps you can try some of these less avian, but more accurate, terms: Instead of “lame duck,” consider…
Garber, referenced above, uses the beautiful phrase “presidential twilight,” a moment when the solarian monarch of the sky exists below the horizon, but maintains a visible glow.
Additionally, another meaning of “twilight”—according to the ever-reliable Google Dictionary—is “a period or state of obscurity, ambiguity, or gradual decline.” If you’re like me and still don’t fully understand how the electoral college works, “obscurity” and “ambiguity” may resonate with you. If it is the dark hours between November 8th and November 9th, 2016, you may find the phrase “gradual decline” useful when articulating the sinking dread and sense of grief churning your bowels.
The president or political official who finds themselves in this role could be called “prenaugurates.” Unfortunately, this is a little ambiguous—are we referring to the incumbent president or the president-elect? Perhaps something like “finaugurate”—as in “final” and “inauguration—works best.
Although “nonelect” risks referring to any president who wasn’t elected, hopefully specific usage of the term would narrow the meaning down to the president who was not re-elected to office. Perhaps a clunkier term would be “non-reelect.”
For those who like dramatic phrases that highlight the horror of this period, try “The Final Hour” or “The Final Months,” or any other temporal unit which conveys this is it! “Finaugurate” might fit better here. It would be up to those using this phrase to provide enough context that the reader knows you are referring to the figure’s final months in office.
To preserve the need to remain vigilant during the last months of a previous president’s term, one could use the phrase Watchout or Keepwatch Period. But, as with “Zero Fucks,” this also describes the posture that constituents should have throughout a political official’s time in office, so may lack specificity.
Or, if you just really like coming across the word “duck” in serious political pieces, try thinking of another adjective, with no bigoted connotations, to modify the bird we have saddled with the burdens of our human affairs. For instance, “done duck” captures both the “no fucks” attitude that might accompany the end of a term as well as the very literal fact that the incumbent president is, well, done with their term. Plus, keeping “duck” in this phrase makes the 45th president “Donald the Done Duck,” highlighting similarities between him and the foul-mouthed fowl of the Disney cartoon, something that has pre-dated Donald “Duck”’s non-reelection. Etsy has quite a few results for “Donald Duck Trump” and the LA Times’ Carolina A. Miranda featured the mirror duo in the title of an Entertainment & Art’s piece “From Donald Duck to Donald Trump, an unprecedented look at Latin American art holds up a mirror to the U.S.”
Written and spoken languages are wonderous forms of communication, stuffing a vast array of concepts and emotions into a few words, phrases, or symbols. As we become more connected with the full diversity of human beings we share this world with, and become more aware of experiences outside our own, we should do our best to use language that respects the full constellation of humanity.