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the Word

Who you calling a moocher?

How an old-timey slur became the rage in 2012

Alli Arnold for The Boston Globe

After Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” fund-raiser video was leaked on Sept. 17, certain key words and phrases took on a life of their own: “Victims.” “I’ll never convince them.” But a word that has become a key part of the campaign conversation is one Romney didn’t use: “moochers.”

The increase in “moocher” talk since the video’s release has been remarkable. Before that date, the LexisNexis news database had counted 420 media mentions of “moocher” or “moochers” for 2012. In just the final two weeks of September, it appeared a whopping 477 times.

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Most of the time, it’s been Obama supporters using “moochers” to paint Romney’s argument in broad strokes. But even before the video, it had already become a kind of “dog whistle” for conservatives railing against the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax (though they may pay other kinds of taxes). In sum, a relatively obscure word with an old-timey feel has been embraced both by those decrying government handouts and those who think such complaints are overblown.

Who got the “moocher” ball rolling? For one, David Corn of Mother Jones used the word in the blog post that introduced the video to the world. Summing up Romney’s surreptitiously taped presentation to campaign donors in Boca Raton last May, Corn wrote, “He displayed a high degree of disgust for nearly half of his fellow citizens, lumping all Obama voters into a mass of shiftless moochers who don’t contribute much, if anything, to society.”

Corn continued to use “moochers” in interviews on MSNBC that evening and NPR the next day. Other commentators followed his lead, with some critics getting creative: Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic offered “moocherpalooza,” and Ed Kilgore of Washington Monthly countered with “moochocracy.”

But the buzzword wasn’t limited to those on the left—and, indeed, politically that’s not where it started. The Washington Times, for instance, defended Romney with an editorial on “Obama’s moocher culture,” using the term quite sincerely. And there’s a reason for its popularity on the right: “moochers” leads straight back to the language of a conservative icon, Ayn Rand. As a character in her 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” puts it, “Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or the looters who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce.”

With the rise of the Rand-admiring Tea Party movement, allusions to “moochers” have grown. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, has praised a book published last winter by Charlie Sykes, a Milwaukee talk radio host, called “A Nation of Moochers: America’s Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing.” Sykes tips his hat to Rand as well as to other predecessors, such as P.J. O’Rourke, who wrote a piece called “A Nation of Moochers” for The Weekly Standard in 2009, and talk-show host Neal Boortz, who has often railed against the “moocher class.”

Long before it was politicized by Rand and her acolytes, “moocher” had an extensive history as a pejorative. The verb “mooch” and the related noun “moocher” go all the way back to Middle English, likely tracing their roots to the Old French word “muchier” meaning “to conceal” or “to hide away.” In English, a “moocher” was originally a loafer, poacher, or petty thief. Starting in the mid-19th century, it developed its modern meaning, referring to someone who begs or sponges off of more productive members of society.

Over the centuries, “moocher” never lost its power. A high water mark came in 1931, when a young jazz singer named Cab Calloway recorded “Minnie the Moocher,” a song laden with veiled references to cocaine and opium use. Women like Minnie were seen as treacherous characters. In a 1935 article in The Baltimore Sun, an evangelist from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union described the “female moocher” as a woman “who goes up to a bar with only a dime in her purse, buys a drink, and then stays there with one foot on the brass rail until men come along who will buy her drinks and get her drunk.”

The “moocher” of Minnie’s day eventually gave way to the “welfare queen” stereotype of the Reagan administration. And it reared its head in the last election as well. In 2008, when Peggy Joseph of Sarasota, Fla., told a reporter that Obama’s election meant that she wouldn’t have to worry about “putting gas in my car” or “paying my mortgage,” the conservative pundit Michelle Malkin branded her “Peggy the Moocher.”

Those on the right who have embraced “moocher” seem to enjoy its old-fashioned resonances. Sykes, in his book, calls on conservatives to revel in the word’s “anachronistic glory,” noting that it “is so old, it is fresh again.” The word’s antiquated sound likely also makes it appealing to those on the left seeking rhetorical ammo against Romney’s camp, since it sounds like something out of the mouth of Scrooge McDuck.

In the end, whatever it does to Romney’s electoral chances, the “47 percent” debacle may have given “moocher” momentary prominence while hurting the word’s chances in the long run. When Neil Cavuto of Fox News asked Romney if he “just kissed half the electorate goodbye” because he “all but called them moochers,” he answered with a firm “No.” And with an election that could very well turn on how well Romney can distance himself from the “moocher” meme, the word itself may become persona non grata among its former boosters.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of
VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com.
He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.
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