I don’t go around specifically looking for political words to discuss. Really, I don’t. But that area of spoken and written English seems to be a fertile breeding ground for new usage, especially in this, an election year. Rarely a week goes by when I don’t hear some new word, or a creative new use of an old word, or some strange turn of phrase that needs to be picked apart to be understood properly.
Recently, the morning news broadcast greeted me with “prebuttal.”
You’ve probably heard this word before – it’s not entirely new. It appears whenever someone makes a speech or issues a press release in anticipation of someone else’s (usually more important) speech or announcement. Typically, it happens during election campaigns, when one side has some good news to tout or some new policy to announce. The other side leaps to the nearest podium and makes claims that undermine the point which hasn’t yet been made (hence the “pre“) by their opponents.
Economic reports are prime targets for prebuttals, but any aspect of politics (domestic and foreign policy, educational reform, etc.) seems fair game. While there’s a certain innate lack of decorum involved in making a prebuttal, they’re accepted in many political situations. The only instances where they’re still anathema might be really big public occasions, such as the annual US state of the union address.
Of course, prebuttals are somewhat risky as well: they’re sort of like playing poker while letting your opponents see your cards. The target of a prebuttal, already aware of the criticisms in the preemptive public attack, can take the opportunity to deflect them. Certainly, most prebuttals try to be more subtle, often taking as much (or more) time to convince listeners (or readers) to ignore the source of the material being “prebutted.” After all, if the “prebutter” can get the audience to avoid encountering the actual text that’s being denigrated, all the better. Then it might not matter what the speaker (or writer) has to say, or how they maneuver around the prebuttal: Why let actual facts cloud the picture?
(Perhaps someone more educated in classical rhetoric can jump in here: is there already a standard rhetorical term for this technique? It wouldn’t be a surprise, since rhetoric has dozens of specialized terms. I looked, but couldn’t find one for this tactic.)
Not long ago I posted on the origin, use, and potentially confusing meaning of exfiltrate. I don’t particularly like that word, and recommended against using it whenever possible. I don’t like prebuttal all that much, either, but in this case I see nearly no chance of confusion (it’s a fairly elegant merging of preemptive and rebuttal); the use also seems to be very consistent, and it seems to fill a specific niche in modern political journalism: respectful ridicule.
Prebuttal has caught on in a sense that seems to be very mildly derogatory. In the majority of the stories that I’ve read or heard which use it, there’s a sort of verbal smirk in play, a light kind of “there they go again” attitude, or a journalistic “rolling-eyes” intent. This is not to say that it’s universally negative, or that when it’s negative it’s used strongly. But the word frequently seems to shine just a little derision on its target. This is understandable, since delivering a prebuttal often makes a speaker seem defensive and petty, because he or she is reacting to an anticipated but not yet uttered remark, not necessarily to reality.
While prebuttal is used most often in politics, I can easily imagine it showing up in non-political contexts – business discussions, legal maneuvering, and so on. Anywhere that one party thinks it can gain an advantage (or reduce an opponent’s advantage) by getting their message out first.
The first documented printed use of prebuttal dates to 1996. There are indications that it was created by a member of President Clinton’s staff just prior to a debate with Bob Dole, but it appeared in The Washington Post in May of that year (also in reference to the Clinton White House); William Safire credited it directly to Al Gore.
Using Google tools, I found a reference in a legal text from 1960, but that turned out to be a scanner misread of “surrebuttal” (a legal term for the rebuttal of a rebuttal). There’s also a possible reference in the index of a medical text from 1967, but the resolution of the scan is so bad that running OCR on it was wishful thinking; the word could be almost anything, including “prefrontal.”
Prebuttal is still new enough that most dictionaries don’t yet list it (I found it only in OED). The usage and style guides I’ve reviewed make no mention of it. While it continues to gain momentum in journalistic use, the spelling isn’t yet fixed (hyphenated “pre-buttal” shows up in a large minority of cases) and headlines frequently use it with “irony quotes,” those little flags that suggest authors, editors, and readers aren’t completely comfortable with a term, or are using it with some humor, sarcasm, or irony.
With the help of JSTOR, I was able to track down a Spring, 2000, article in Archivaria, the Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists. This paper provided a wonderful definition of prebuttal:
“blame prevention re-engineering” (Gilbert 96).
That’s very accurate in many cases and worth remembering.
Now that you know all about prebuttals, use them wisely. Don’t let the word itself bother you, but always ask yourself if the benefit of a prebuttal is proportional to the risk of how you’ll be perceived. A skilled prebuttal can give you an edge, but a poorly executed one can leave you looking foolish.
= = =
The Archivaria paper by Jay Gilbert, “Access Denied: The Access to Information Act and Its Effect on Public Records Creators” (Archivaria 49, Spring 2000, pg 84-123) credits that wonderful definition to Christopher Hood and Henry Rothstein, “Institutions and Risk Management: Problem-Solvers or Blame-Shifters?” unpublished paper (extended version of a plenary address to the SRA Conference in Paris, 11–14 October 1998).
In case you were wondering, there is no “buttal” in the English language (at least not in a debating sense). The word “rebuttal” was formed from “rebut.”
As a final note, I wanted to point out that as a word prebuttal is new and unusual enough that every time it’s used in the press you can actually watch the number of Google hits increase almost in real time. There were nearly 10% more uses of prebuttal across the entire Internet when I posted this article as when I began it.