December 21, 2007

Couric on the primaries: too close to call, tight as a tick

As the early rounds of presidential primaries and caucuses approach, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric has been emphasizing just how close the races are. On the Dec. 18 edition of the program, Couric had this to say to chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer about the upcoming Iowa caucuses:

You and I talked a little earlier this afternoon, Bob, we were saying Iowa is really getting interesting. As they say in the business, too close to call. In fact, that phrase was invented here at CBS between 1962 and 1964. I thought you might find that interesting.

Then the next night, Couric opened the Evening News broadcast with a teaser about a close primary race in another state:

The first presidential battle in the South. A new poll shows it's tight as a tick in South Carolina between Clinton and Obama.

First, let's consider Couric's assertion that the phrase "too close to call" was a CBS newsroom invention of the early '60s. After The Hotline made this their quote of the day, Couric felt obliged to support her claim on the Couric & Co. blog:

At first it sounds like something out of a horse race – a literal one, not the political races in Iowa or New Hampshire. Curious if that was the case, I asked Couric & Co. to check it out. Sure enough, language guru William Safire had pondered the same thing in one of his “On Language” columns back in 1996. Safire writes:

Daniel Schorr of National Public Radio remembers the phrase from the early days of television, and directed me to Martin Plissner of CBS, a pioneer of electronic election coverage.
"That phrase was invented at CBS between 1962 and 1964," says Plissner with the confidence never shared by lexicographers. "During that period, instead of using the exit polling we have today, we used a model we had devised for predicting or calling elections based on certain reported-precinct results. That gave us a sample to which we could apply mathematical formulae to determine a call. When we had a situation in which all the votes were reported but there was no clear winner, we called that election too close to call."

A little poking around inside CBS News today revealed more: that Lou Harris, who worked for CBS News in the ‘60s, is said to have first uttered those words on air when reporting on a tight race for governor of Massachusetts in 1962.

So Couric wasn't pulling this factoid out of thin air: Martin Plissner told Safire that the phrase was "invented at CBS," and another unnamed newsroom source gave Lou Harris the credit for having "first uttered those words" in 1962. But if Couric's fact-checkers had dug a little deeper, they might have discovered that there was something to her initial hunch that "too close to call" might have come out of a (literal) horse race or some other similar sporting context. In fact, "too close to call" shows up in the sports pages going back to the 1930s. Of the citations below, the first three relate to boxing and the fourth to college football:

For once they admitted that there was a fight too close to call.
Zanesville (Ohio) Signal, Nov. 3, 1932, p. 2 ("Today's Sport Parade" by Henry McLemore)

Canzoneri or Ross? It's too close to call. Let the referee decide it. Or the judges.
New York Times, Sep. 12, 1933, p. 30 ("Sports of the Times" by John Kieran)

That may make a difference when they step through the ropes and start firing. It makes it too close to call with any confidence in advance.
New York Times, May 6, 1938, p. 30 ("Sports of the Times" by John Kieran)

Missouri is favored over Iowa State; Nebraska should rout Kansas; Oklahoma and Kansas State are too close to call.
Burlington (NC) Daily Times-News, Oct. 16, 1940, p. 7

So was CBS at least the first to use "too close to call" to refer to a close electoral race? Evidently not, as it appears in print well before the putative 1962 invention. The phrase was applied to various close races in 1958:

The Senate struggle [in Minnesota] between Republican Sen. Edward J. Thye and Democratic Rep. Eugene McCarthy looks too close to call.
Albuquerque (NM) Journal, Oct. 12, 1958, p. 31 (AP wire story)

Maryland: Too close to call is the current verdict on the race between Senator J. Glenn Beall, Republican, seeking a second term, and Baltimore's Maryor Thomas D'alesandro.
New York Times, Oct. 13, 1958, p. 24

Two weeks before election, its [sc. New Jersey's] race for United States Senator is considered too close to call.
New York Times, Oct. 21, 1958, p. 1

A veteran newspaper political writer said the gubernatorial fight [in Wisconsin] between incumbent Republican Vernon Thomson and [Gaylord] Nelson is "too close to call."
Daily Review (Hayward, Cal.), Oct. 24, 1958, p. 25 (UPI wire story)

So by 1962, "too close to call" had become established in political reporting for at least four years. If CBS can lay any claim to the phrase, it's possible that the network was the first to use it as a categorization of close races in election-night coverage as voting returns came trickling in. But that's a far cry from saying it was "invented" or "first uttered" by Lou Harris or another CBS correspondent.

Couric's other turn of phrase, "tight as a tick," might actually have a more distinct CBS provenance, since it's widely attributed to her predecessor Dan Rather (known for his colorful Texanisms):

The new Iowa Polls show the caucus fights are "tight as a tick," as Dan Rather might say. (Des Moines Register, Dec. 1, 2007)

The conclusion to be drawn from this mass of data is that -- in the words of Dan Rather -- it is "tight as a tick" in Iowa. (Washington Post blog, Dec. 7, 2007)

In 2000, CNN host Jeff Greenfield attributed a more elaborate version to Rather:

And yet, either because of the challenger's appeal or the insider's weakness or maybe, maybe, because of an enduring American hunger for the new, this contest remains tight as a tick in Grandma's corset. I have no idea what that means, but it works for Dan Rather. (CNN transcript, Oct. 31, 2000)

I was unable to find the "Grandma's corset" variant in any of the CBS transcripts available on LexisNexis, but I did find another version from Rather:

There are races in the presidential races in individual states that are as tight as a tick on a dog's ear here. (CBS News transcript, Nov. 5, 1996)

The political use of "tight as a tick" isn't always credited to Rather, as in this recent usage by Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons on CNN:

So, I think you can't count John Edwards out yet. It's tight as a tick, as they say. (CNN transcript, Dec. 10, 2007)

And in the last presidential election cycle Gordon Fischer, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, used yet another variant on the Fox News show "Big Story with John Gibson":

Well, you know, frankly from the polls, this is looking as tight as a tick on a deer. (Fox News transcript, Jan 19, 2004)

"On a deer" is an interesting variation on the theme, since a quick Google search finds the tick appearing chiefly in canine locations, in accordance with Rather's 1996 usage: on a hound, bloodhound, hound dog, coon dog, dog, dog's ear, dog's back, etc.

Though Rather tends to get the credit for "tight as a tick" with reference to close political races, it's a regional idiom with a wide array of other possible meanings. These meanings have lately been dissected on the American Dialect Society mailing list, in a discussion sparked by Couric's recent usage. Darla Wells, who first caught the broadcast, was familiar with the sense of "tight as a tick" meaning 'having had too much to drink,' and Dennis Preston collected this sense for his 1975 article, "Proverbial comparisons from southern Indiana" (Orbis 24,1:72-114). Ron Butters, meanwhile, suggested the idiom could mean 'miserly,' with tight related to tightwad. Finally, Gregory McNamee supplied some local knowledge from the region of Virginia where Couric was raised, saying that "tight/full as a tick" in that area refers to someone who has overeaten, "gorged to the point of popping, like a tick full of blood."

So Couric's Virginian understanding of the simile may have been influenced by Rather's north Texan dialect (or his own peculiar idiolect), allowing a semantic transferral to the realm of political campaigns. Considering the often contentious relationship between the current CBS anchor and the former one, it's interesting that Couric might be taking her cue from Rather when it comes to this particular idiom.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 21, 2007 01:11 AM