Rove and the famous "frogmarch"
Rove's famous devoutly-to-be-wished "frogmarch," and where (etymologically) it came from.
Posted on Thu, Oct. 02, 2003
'Frog-march' hops back into the modern lexicon
By David Montgomery
"At the end of the day it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs." --Joseph Wilson, former ambassador
YOU'RE NOT SURE exactly what it means -- to be "frog-marched," the white-hot verb of the moment in Washington -- but you can tell it would not be fun, even without handcuffs.
You get a mental picture of arms twisted behind your back, of being lifted against your will, of feet windmilling futility beneath you, as in a violent cartoon. This is what Wilson, a prominent critic of President Bush's claims about Iraqi nuclear ambitions, wishes upon whoever leaked to reporters that his wife works for the CIA. Perhaps, though, the frog-march quote may have been a bit too heady. "I probably should have shut my mouth on that," Wilson said Tuesday. "I was carried away on the spirit of the moment." He has recently conceded that he has no evidence the culprit was Rove, one of Bush's top advisers, but he says he believes Rove "condoned" the leak.
The Justice Department is investigating the leak as a potential federal crime, and maybe a frog-march is in someone's future. Frog-marching is all over talk shows, newspaper columns and Web chats. Some members of the public might say a few journalists deserve a frog-march, as well, for publishing the woman's name.
But where does the frog part come in? Would you be forced to hop? Does this have something to do with the French?
Let's go to the dictionary. The first recorded usage -- from a British newspaper in 1871, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) -- doesn't help much: "They did not give the defendant the 'Frog's March.'"
You gather the defendant was lucky.
Later uses clarify the meaning: It's slang for "the method of carrying a drunken or refractory prisoner face downwards between four men, each holding a limb," says the OED. The prisoner or the drunk "was thought to look like a frog," says Jesse Sheidlower, principal North American editor for the OED.
But that meaning quickly got superseded by the more modern sense: "To grasp by the arm and force to walk along," according to Webster's New World College Dictionary, which also says the expression is chiefly a British colloquialism.
"I have the image of a guard on each side grabbing one arm and lifting both feet off the ground, and the legs are scrambling for purchase on the ground, and hence kinked like a frog's -- but that's just my mental image," says Mike Agnes, editor in chief of Webster's New World Dictionaries.
Now the concisely evocative verb is making a successful amphibious invasion of Washington patois. If the flap blows into a scandal with a ruinous aftermath, "frog-marched out of the White House" could become one of those chiseled expressions that summon an affair for the ages, like "hanging chad," "I did not have sex with that woman" and "I am not a crook."
Linguists are loving it. Wayne Glowka, chairman of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, was waking up to CNN on Tuesday when he heard "frog-marched out of the White House," and he scribbled it down. "Frog-march" will be a candidate for the society's annual list of new or newly prominent expressions, he says.
Sheidlower says "frog-marched out of the White House" could even make the revised edition now being assembled.
Allan Metcalf, author of "Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success," says the phrase may be on the cusp of wide currency. "We need somebody else to be frog-marched out of some place. Once that happens the whole pond will be hopping."
But "frog-march" was not unknown before the Wilson affair. Sheidlower quotes from Tom Clancy's 1989 "Clear and Present Danger": "He frog-marched the man toward the trees."
Fortune magazine recently wrote about the marshals at Pebble Beach who "frog-march" slowpoke golfers.
In "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," Percy Weasley, an older brother of Harry's friend Ron, was reluctant to don the new sweater he got for Christmas. His brothers put on theirs, forced Percy's over his head, then "frog-marched Percy from the room, his arms pinned to his side by his sweater."
On the "Today" show a few years ago, "Potter" author J.K. Rowling took questions from young readers. A girl named Rio asked about this strange verb: "What did she mean by 'They frog-marched Percy'?"
Rowling gave a perfect definition: "That's when two people stand (on) either side of a third person and they force them to walk along.
"It's like you're under arrest."
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