Blacklist vs Blackball

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” – Groucho Marx

Blacklist or blackball? Which term is correct in which context and why?

I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of misuse and confusion with these two terms recently. I’ve noticed this problem occasionally before, but it’s been more frequent and more obvious over the past couple of months, specifically when one term or the other is used in relation to the “scandal” around some players taking a knee, staying in the locker room, or otherwise expressing an opinion during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games (the “scare quotes” ought to indicate where I stand on this issue, but if you need it spelled out: there’s a reason the First Amendment comes first and isn’t tucked into a footnote).

Many reports have discussed or otherwise commented on Colin Kaepernick being “blackballed” by NFL owners and management since he got the whole thing started in August of 2016. Putting aside the politics, is that interpretation correct: has he been blackballed and, if so, what does that mean?

The simple answer is noHe hasn’t been blackballed. He’s been blacklisted. An uninformed person might assume that these terms mean the same thing, but they do not.

Accuracy and precision are often critical when using words, and these two terms are no exception. The difference between blackball and blacklist, as Twain said, might be the difference between lightning and lightning bug (or, if you prefer, the difference between a ham sandwich and Hamtramck). When you use (or encounter) either word, you should understand what it means.

Blacklisting sort of sounds like what it is: someone, somewhere, is keeping a list. Historically, a blacklist is a list of individuals, organizations, or even entire countries that some entity finds undesirable, for whatever reason. It might be due to a legitimate concern: a blacklist of known criminals, for instance, or of countries with an unacceptable level of government corruption. But blacklists are just as often used for discrimination on social or ideological grounds.

The most infamous example is the Hollywood blacklist of the 1940s and ’50s, a shameful incident in American history when many actors, screenwriters, directors, and others were barred from working because of their political beliefs, largely based on innuendo and paranoia. Does that sound familiar? It should, because that’s what seems to have happened with Kaepernick (who drew no attention to his protest and, in his direct statements, offered no disrespect: this was attributed to him by others). The fact that no NFL team will sign him, even though many observers are of the opinion that he is demonstrably better than some current NFL quarterbacks, suggests that he has been blacklisted.

It is necessary to note that a blacklist does not have to physically exist for someone to be blacklisted: the entire process can be informal, occurring only by word of mouth, or by wink and nod, or by tacit complicity. It’s a matter of intent and outcome. The concept of a blacklist is probably as old as human society itself; as a specific phrase in English, the OED dates it as far back as 1624 as a noun (with variable shades of meaning) and 1837 as a verb.

This is different from being blackballed. The term blackball comes from a process by which any existing member of a group has the power to prevent a new member from joining. This is not a “the majority rules” process, but a veto power: in a club of 100, if only one existing member blackballs a potential member, that candidate will be rejected. (In practice, organizations that use a blackball method usually require at least two black balls, but the principle is the same.) OED offers examples of blackball (in the correct context) as a noun back to 1550 and a verb to 1765.

While Groucho Marx was not blacklisted, one must assume that he would have blackballed himself, if ever given the opportunity.*

Kaepernick often appears to be on an NFL blacklist of one, but similar blacklisting has been noted in professional sports in the past (note that this particular article misuses blackball over blacklist in its headline).

For what it’s worth, I’ve found incorrect uses of blackball for blacklist going back several decades. People have probably been making this error for as long as the two terms have coexisted. That doesn’t make the usage acceptable, only persistent. When you have the opportunity to use one of these terms, be sure to choose the correct one.

= = = = =

* The Groucho quote used here deserves a few more words. Some sources attribute it to Groucho, but many regurgitate the debunked notion that it stems from an idea in Freud (a mistake in turn attributed to a Woody Allen film).

The sentiment is sometimes attributed to a line in The Forsyte Saga (1922), but the term is not used and a careful reader will conclude that the context is different: the character the line describes enjoys being curmudgeonly and disagreeable at the expense of his fellow club members; he feels no compunction about associating with them or adhering to club norms, and continues to view his membership as valuable.

Groucho’s general sentiment was not original: Abraham Lincoln wrote something similar in 1838. But regardless of the ultimate origin, Groucho honed the comedic use of this line and popularized it, and deserves full credit for the modern formulation.

An exhaustive look at variants of Groucho’s usage can be found here.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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