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Why are we calling the GOP presidential slate a “clown car”?

clown, vintage, train car

The humble clown car has been having a resurgence of late. Not the actual vehicle (the overstuffed car which spills out a seemingly improbable number of red-nosed and bewigged jesters), but the phrase. The reason for this has much to do with the crowded slate of candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination; there are over a dozen declared candidates who are household names, and more who are thought likely to run.

Back in January of this year, the Huffington Post published a piece called “The 2015 GOP Clown Car: Bigger, Meaner, and More Dangerous Than Ever,” and in May, the Washington Post had an opinion piece with the succinct title of “The Republican field is a Clown Car.” As the field of contenders has grown ever larger, more and more people have been using it to describe this crop of political aspirants. So what exactly is a clown car, and where does it come from?

Clown cars originated in the circus world, making their first appearance in the early 20th century. At this time clown car did not refer to the clown cars we all know and love today (or hate, depending on your feelings about clowns); the phrase referred to another kind of car entirely: a train car. Since circuses often traveled by train, the clown car (as opposed to the car occupied by the trapeze artists or other circus performers) was the car for the clowns. In the railroad realm, it was also meant a train car that was made of bits and pieces of scraps. Around the same time, the phrase also described a car which was often brightly painted, sometimes would drive on two wheels instead of four, and, within, carried a normal number or occupants.

The birth of the modern (meaning overstuffed) clown car came in the early 1940s. An article in the Chicago Daily Tribune from August 29, 1943, (“Circus Nostalgic, Despite Glittering Pageantry”) refers to a “snorting clown car, which disgorges jesters galore.” In 1947, the Lexington Herald (referring to the Coles Brothers Circus) writes that “the venerable ‘clown car’ gag was used, and it’s a memorable experience to ride with 16 others in an ordinary-sized automobile.” Despite these useful references, the precise origin of this circus bit remains shrouded in mystery, but when did the phrase begin to be used figuratively? Fairly recently, it would appear.

A 1979 article in the Seattle Daily Times refers to a performance of the Nutcracker ballet, with “Mother Goose with all of the tots in red ‘jammies rolling out from under her petticoat (shades of the clown car at the circus).” But it is not until the 1990s that we begin to see the words used in a completely figurative fashion. Howie Carr, writing in the Boston Globe in 1992, began a column with the line “The clown car keeps pulling up in front of Joe Early headquarters, and the clowns just keep piling out.”

It remains to be seen whether the figurative clown car will have staying power, joining successful snippets of circus lingo (such as dog and pony show and ringmaster), or whether it will go the way of other largely forgotten terms of the big top (such as funambulist). – Ammon Shea is the author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation and Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He lives in New York City with his wife (a former lexicographer), son (a potential future lexicographer), and two non-lexical dogs.

18 Comments

  1. Big Willy -  September 5, 2015 - 10:25 am

    “We” aren’t calling it that. You are.

    Reply
  2. pbmaise -  August 27, 2015 - 7:35 pm

    On January 27, 2015 Alabama came into view.

    Bloomberg Review by Noah Feldman

    “Maybe you remember Roy Moore? He’s the chief justice of Alabama who, in 2001, ordered the erection of a 5,200 pound granite copy of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court — then refused to remove it in 2003 after a federal court ruled it unconstitutional. On Tuesday, while the Northeast was covered in snow, Moore was at it again. He sent the Alabama governor a letter asserting that Alabama judges aren’t bound by the federal district court decision requiring issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the state.”

    This in turn led to GOP canidates taking a “clown car” position. The number of canidates in the field is NOT the reason.

    Clearly the citation is previous clown type associations with Alabama. The GOP have climbed into the clown car. They did not arrive in it.

    Reply
  3. pbmaise -  August 27, 2015 - 6:56 pm

    An obvious source is “The Race Of The Thousand Clowns” May 1966 by Harold H. Martin. Saturday Evening Post

    This is an article focusing on politics in Alabama and the wife of Governor George Wallace.

    I see this term calling the entire GOP itself and the platform it rolls out again and again the clown car.
    Face it, the entire world had almost zero respect for either Bush and yet one more Bush is seen in the world as yet another clown from the Bush family.

    Face it, the GOP positions are extreme and lost again and again. Having a bunch of grown men and women put on a mask and pretend to be, born agains, anti-gay, pro-NRA, anti-medical plans etc. makes them look like they are nothing but clowns out of touch with the world.

    Also note clown used in Wikipedia.

    William Ralph “Shorty” Price , (October 3, 1921 – November 1, 1980) was an attorney and perennial political candidate from the state of Alabama, mostly noted for his colorful “clown” persona.

    He used to be George Wallace’s roommate.

    Reply
  4. Melissa Kimball -  August 19, 2015 - 7:16 am

    Umm…so back to the subject of ‘clown car’…my son uses it to describe any freakishly small car such as a Smart Car or a Mini Cooper.

    Reply
  5. Steve -  August 11, 2015 - 1:39 pm

    I believe you are missing the metaphor. A clown car springs forth a huge amount of passengers, even more than it can hold. With 17 candidates in the race, if they did get into a car it would look more like a clown car when they got out.

    It’s the concept of the clown car holding more than it can carry. Not that the people themselves.

    Reply
    • EuroAm -  August 15, 2015 - 1:54 am

      To many of us Steve, it’s both. The candidates themselves and their positions, with the charitable among us saying 15 of the 17.

      ‘Clown car’ universally calls to mind the image of many clowns exiting a small car and is metaphorically referring to both the candidates (as clownish) and their positions (as small minded).

      Reply
  6. Dan -  August 11, 2015 - 11:12 am

    Being politically purple, I am constantly appalled at the lack of humor displayed by those of both political extremes. Lighten up, folks.

    Reply
  7. Lu Bota -  August 9, 2015 - 6:23 pm

    What a shame! Are we really reduced to this kind of conversation when we ‘as a people’ are thinking about and debating the direction in which we want this wonderful country of ours to go? The men and women are giving us choices….to think about, to talk about…in our homes, in our workplaces….and then ‘we the people’ will be given the privilege to choose who we want to be our leader….we are referring to them as clowns? We deserve the ridicule we will surely experience from the rest of the world!!

    Reply
    • CJ -  August 10, 2015 - 4:29 pm

      +1

      Reply
      • Arn -  August 13, 2015 - 9:43 am

        +1

        Reply
  8. CJ -  August 9, 2015 - 3:26 am

    ‘Why are we calling the GOP presidential slate a “clown car”?’ – LOL, ‘we?’ We aren’t, but if _you_ are it’s because you’re Democrats! A ‘clown car’ is overcrowded, sure, but the term is also unambiguously disparaging. Let’s not pretend that there’s anything objective or nonpartisan about use of a term that’s implicitly suggesting Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich are clowns.

    Reply
    • Robert Maxwell -  August 13, 2015 - 3:23 pm

      Oh, please. It’s not really that nasty. Some political metaphors are far worse. The only reason the phrase is now being used is not that the GOP candidates themselves are clowns but that never in recent history have there been so MANY of them piling into the race.

      Reply
  9. frank -  August 7, 2015 - 6:01 am

    Didn’t quite get the convoluted dissection of clown car. way overthought. Of course it comes form the days of circus trains and still retains the meaning today.. A large group of contenders not to be taken seriously or at least performing in clown character, tripping over each other disorganized etc ,… clowns pure and simple. Certainly aptly describes the republican ticket today

    Reply
  10. Atillathemommy -  August 6, 2015 - 5:30 pm

    Really?

    Reply
    • Greg -  August 7, 2015 - 4:13 pm

      So I guess that would put the Democratic Party candidates in a limousine car.

      Reply
      • ErnieBanks4ever -  August 10, 2015 - 10:56 am

        Hahahahahaha, Greg! The Dems in a limo and the pandering liberal media agreeably (and literally) held at a distance behind ropes.

        Reply
      • CJ -  August 10, 2015 - 4:27 pm

        I suppose one could think of Hillary as receiving chauffeur service compliments of her investment bank and tech sector donors – with Sanders following on a bicycle.

        Reply
      • Robert Maxwell -  August 13, 2015 - 3:24 pm

        You’re doing exactly what you accuse the writer of doing — and worse.

        Reply

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