News & Politics

Loathsome Word of the Day: Clinch

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves to the crowd as she takes the stage to speak during the fourth day session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Thursday, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

When Hillary Clinton accepted the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night, one aspect of the event caused me just as much joy as it had when Donald Trump became the Republican nominee the week before: From that moment on, no one would speak, for another four years, of Hillary clinching the nomination. The two candidates were now simply, until whatever happened on November 8, the nominees.

The morning after the Indiana primaries in May, someone on the radio (not for the first time) actually spoke of the candidates not clinching but clenching the nomination.

Clench is indeed a great word—vivid, active, almost onomatopoeic in its monosyllabic tautness, and, unlike clinch, not at all overused. (See, I don’t only bemoan linguistic loathsomeness; I recognize good words, too.) In fact, on its own terms clinch is an excellent word as well, for much the same reasons.

What rankles is the unexamined reliance on the same words over and over. It’s one thing to stretch too far for “creative” nouns and verbs—I’ve tweeted before about two personal irritants of mine, albeit with no useful explanation (I was probably in a cranky mood).

It’s another thing not even to consider alternatives. From Trump and Clinton’s respective turning-point primaries until the Cleveland and Philadelphia conventions, they had all but won the nomination. They’d locked (or sewn) up the nomination. They’d been virtually ensured the nomination. I’m not saying any of those phrases are sparklingly fresh (at least one is a tried-and-true cliché in its own right), but used every now and then, they would have added some variety to the coverage, broken up the lemming-like procession of clinch clichés (clinchés?).

As for taking down clinch’s overexposed cousin, presumptive, I didn’t get a chance—my colleague Andrew Beaujon beat me to it in early June. All I could do was offer my humble appreciation (while damning him silently for depriving me of a #loathsomewords tweet).

Calling presumptive “a sub-optimal bit of language, the kind of thing news organizations use for lack of better options,” Andrew noted especially the word’s stuffy connotations. But he also quoted William Safire, who said in 2008: “I like ‘expected, likely, probable,’ even ‘odds on.’ ” Those would be my picks as well, and I’ve wondered why they never seem to have occurred to reporters, commentators, and editors over the last several months.

Perhaps they’ve been too busy setting up, conducting, and, by implication, congratulating themselves for wide-ranging interviews with Trump, Clinton, and other politicians.

That’s the other phrase that has me gritting, if not clenching, my teeth in this very, very long election season.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.