Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wordsmith: The Etymology of "Bandwagon"

If you see a bandwagon, it's too late.
-James Goldsmith

No one likes to be called a ‘bandwagoner’—a johnny-come-lately, a shameless joiner—, and the term has even become the ultimate insult among sports and indie music fans. For as long as mankind has existed, people have mindlessly glommed onto successful efforts, but the term ‘bandwagoner’ itself has much more recent origins, dating only to the 19th century, C.E. and bearing close ties to the unsuccessful presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, perhaps best known for opposing the gold standard. Bryan, a noted populist, invented the political stumping tour, first traveling the country to rally grassroots support for free silver leading up to the 1896 election. Defeated by William McKinley, who garnered more support among the Germans and middle class, Bryan resolved to try again with a different platform in 1900. This time, Bryan redoubled his stumping efforts, riding a flat-bed wagon around the 45 states and addressing the nation via bullhorn. While riding through Lincoln, Nebraska, a full British-style brass band jumped on his wagon, hoping to hitch a ride to a playing engagement at a nearby farm. Bryan, amenable, allowed the band to keep playing en route. After attracting more than the usual crowd from their homes to view this ‘bandwagon,’ Bryan kept the band as a regular feature for the rest of the campaign. This apparent success proved fleeting, however, as the popularity of the now-famous “Bryan Bandwagon” among his western and midwestern “bandwagoners” failed to translate to victory at the polls. Bitter after two defeats, Bryan cursed the fair-weather “bandwagoners” and excluded the popular stumping attraction from his trust-busting, third presidential campaign eight years later.

1 comment:

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