Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster holding up the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director came to an end after 13 hours on Wednesday. And while the filibuster lasted, it captured the public interest not only because of Paul's impassioned stand on the issue of possible drone strikes on American citizens, but also because it wasn't the kind of filibuster we usually see these days.
As many Americans have learned, the usual means of initiating a filibuster for some years has been a "let's not and say we did" approach: A senator simply registers his or her theoretical willingness to debate something to death. To save that senator the trouble of actually having to talk for hours on end, and other senators the trouble of having to be present for it (which they would have to do if the filibustering senator were to demand a roll call), no further action is taken until at least 60 senators are willing to vote to end the hypothetical filibuster.
Rand Paul, however, did it old-school. And the headlines and news stories referred to his action as a "talking filibuster."
This new term seems to have originated in 2010, in the late Sen. Arlen Specter's final speech to the Senate, as a recommendation for filibuster reform. (At least, that's the earliest attestation I've found.) It's a great example of a retronym — a more specific version of a word that comes into existence to refer to a "classic" type of thing that the original word used to refer to.
Retronyms are more common than you might think. For example, a guitar was a guitar until there were electric guitars, and then acoustic guitar was coined to refer to what plain old guitar used to mean. Other examples include snail mail (for mail), landline (for telephone), and Episode IV: A New Hope (for what my generation calls Star Wars). In the case of talking filibuster, the term that contrasts with it is silent filibuster. (Silent filibuster is also a good example of semantic change. In the 1880s, it referred to the minority party demanding a roll call and then refusing to answer. But by the time it was needed in the first few years of the 21st century, this older meaning had been mostly forgotten.)
Talking filibuster (also sometimes called a "live filibuster") is also a good example of the interplay of two opposing linguistic principles of conversation. In the 1960s, philosopher H. P. Grice proposed several "conversational maxims" that essentially lay out the rules of how to read between the lines of an utterance. The two of interest here are the maxims of Quantity and Relevance.
To obey the principle of Quantity, which is all about making things easier for the listener, you give as much information as you have to to make your meaning clear. In this case, simply saying that Rand Paul performed a filibuster isn't enough to convey the interesting meaning. To get that, you need to say something more, and hence the more specific term talking filibuster.
Relevance comes into play when we consider the question of why the word filibuster by itself isn't sufficient. The problem isn't that it's vague, and can refer to both talking and silent filibusters. The problem is that if you tell someone who hasn't been following the news that Sen. Paul "filibustered," they will probably settle on one of those more specific meanings, most likely the silent filibuster, which is exactly the one you don't want. Why will they settle on this meaning? In a word, Relevance. To obey this principle of convenience for the speaker, you give as little information as you can get away with to convey your meaning. Most of the time these days, a filibuster is done with just the threat of endless debate, not actual endless debate. Therefore, you don't need to say "silent filibuster," because filibuster will get your meaning across.
Except in those rare cases when it doesn't. Rand Paul's talking filibuster was such a case.
Update: Since publication, we've turned up an even earlier use of the phrase — in this February 2010 article in The Nation. So it looks like Sen. Specter didn't coin it after all.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- The best places to find love — and lust — according to science
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- Sex can't explain the culture war
- How the battle for religious freedom became a nonsensical free-for-all
- The 6 best low-cost smartphones
- Boyhood's refreshingly unsentimental take on motherhood
- Why GOP reformers are bound to fail
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
Subscribe to the Week