ward-heeler / ward heeler

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ward-heeler / ward heeler

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Nov 16, 2011 3:45 am

[In an earlier posting My search for the right word [for a self-interested politician] has failed, as we wandered around a bit, as we often do, the interesting expression WARD-HEELER reared its head and it seemed interesting enough to merit being listed on its own and also to provide easy reference.]

I came across:
A ward heeler variously describes a politician or political worker in the United States who is in politics for private gain rather than public service, who does illegal acts on behalf of a political party, or who is a low level political operative soliciting votes and doing chores for a political boss.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_heeler
All the other dictionaries I consulted only give the second part of that definition, i.e. a menial political worker.

Phil White
14 Nov 2011 08:11


Thefreedictionary.com defines 'political hack' as a politician who belongs to a small clique that controls a political party for private rather than public ends.

'Ward heeler' is interesting -- I'd never heard it before, but according to Google it's fairly well-known (circa 120,000 hits at my time/space coordinates). I think it must be one of those jargon terms that has not yet escaped into the realm of common usage

Erik_Kowal
14 Nov 2011 17:46


Phil and Erik, I was surprised to find that ward-heeler appears in most U.S. dictionaries, since I had never heard it – well, I guess my not having heard of a word is not all that unusual.

The only thing I can make out of the “clique” definition is that a ward is considered a kind of clique as it was by Mayor Daley of Chicago (the father) and others.

The OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY lists ward-heeler as U.S. expression although it has British/Scottish/Irish connection (at least as far as ‘ward’ goes – see below).

WARD-HEELER noun U.S. [see quote 1890 below for definition]

WARD noun: An administrative division of a borough or city; originally, a district under the jurisdiction of an alderman; now usually, a district which elects its own councillors to represent it on the City or Town Council. Also, the people of such a district collectively. [[American Heritage Dictionary: A district of some English and Scottish counties corresponding roughly to the hundred or the wapentake (A historical subdivision of some northern counties in England, corresponding roughly to the hundred in other shires.)]]

HEELER noun: One who follows at the heels of a leader or ‘boss’ [[as an obedient dog]]; an unscrupulous or disreputable follower of a professional politician. U.S.

Some WARD-HEELER quotes:
<1876 “As the crowd dispersed into the corridor a gentleman happened to say that the gang in the room was composed of Tammany ‘heelers,’ when a Tammany retainer, taking umbrage at the epithet, knocked the gentleman down, . . .”—New York Times, 26 June, page 1> [[The word “HEELER comes from the way a dog is brought to heel to follow its master closely.”—Safire's Political Dictionary (2008), page 787]]

<1884 “But for what office are you running, and who is the third-rate ward heeler whose friends are rattling you?”—Puck, Vol. 14, No. 356, page 250>

<1887 “I entered and saw a well-known ward heeler . . . pass a five dollar bill into each voters hands with no effort at concealment. . . . This was my first introduction that day to practical politics, . . .”—An Election in New York by E. J. Levey, Vol. 145, Issue: 373, December, page 680>

<1890 “The lowest grade [of politician] is the ‘ward-heeler,’or hanger-on of the political head of the city ward in which he resides.”—Quarterly Review (London), July, page 265>

<1906 “. . . men who too often lend themselves to the purposes of the ward heeler, the district leader in controlling the people; who too often keep silence when the poor are the victims . . .”—On the Trail of the Immigrant by E. Steiner, page 278>

<1907 “[San Francisco] Bar-room politicians, roughs, ward-heelers, bullies.”—Times (London), 23 January, page 6/2> [[Note: The OED ‘Times’ link is broken, so I’m assuming it is the Times of London, which is the usual meaning when the single word appears]]

<1945 “NAZI WARD-HEELER TRIED FOR MURDER: A crippled Nazi listened unemotionally in a U. S. Army courtroom today as his fellow-townsmen accused him of the brutal murder of an unknown American flier. .”—The Charleroi Mail (Pennsylvania), 16 June, page 1>

<1986 “The alderman is an old-fashioned ward heeler and a new-fangled reformer.”—Chicago Sun-Times, 12 January>

<1995 “. . .former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew . . .beamed as a bust of himself was unveiled outside the Senate. . . a once pugnacious politician forced to quit after prosecutors had detailed a classic ward-heeler's graft scandal. Quite simply, he was accused of accepting bribes for years, even as he worked in the shadow of the White House.”—New York Times, 25 May> [[Why they would have a bust of a criminal outside the Senate is beyond me.]]

<2002 “The ward 'heeler' often corrals a gang like a bee man does his swarm in the hive he has prepared for it. . . . In return his proteges work for him in innumerable ways and every gang boy in the hive is expected to gather honey on Election Day, . . .”—Chicago Sun-Times, 22 December>

<2003 “Like a Chicago ward heeler, Hassoon is valuable because he can deliver people and votes.”—Chicago Tribune, 26 May>

<2008 “First, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was overheard by prosecutors trying to auction off the United States Senate seat just vacated by President-elect Barack Obama (for cash or post-Statehouse employment).. . . On Tuesday, he broke his postarrest seclusion, . . . to announce that he has chosen Roland Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, for the job. . . the issue was not Mr. Burris’s qualifications, but Gov. Blagojevich’s standing as a desperate ward heeler who’s lost all credibility.”—New York Times, 30 December>

<2011 “Anybody eligible to contest a Dail election can be a candidate. . . .No fee is payable. Every candidate gets a free mailshot to each of the circa 100,000 voters; they only have to pay for the printing of their piece of election literature. There are no political party hoops to jump and no time-serving as a ‘ward heeler’ is required.”—Irish Times (Dublin), 24 March>
WARD-HEELING adjective U.S.: Pertaining to, engaged in, or designating, the activities of a ward-heeler.

Some WARD-HEELING quotes:
<1972 “Practical politics, the ward-heeling kind.”—Porkchoppers (1974) by R. Thomas. xxiv. page 208>

<1976 “ But neither ward-heeling councilmen nor grandstanding mayors can provide the kind of leadership that gets things done.”—Billings Gazette (Montana), 1 July>

<1980 “Why the hell would there be any integrity in these ward-heeling affairs?— Castang’s City by N. Freeling, xv. Page 100>

<1993 “In our pride as the world's leading democracy we tend to forget that it wasn't Americans but Greeks who first gave power to the people. And it is also to Athens that we owe such cherished practices as ballot-box stuffing, ward heeling. gerrymandering and the bum's rush.”—Washington Post (D.C.), 18 June>

<2008 “In a worst-case scenario, this dual budgeting system would invite the very worst of classic ‘ward heeling’ tendencies, where council members would put items in the reallocation fund for favored folks.”—Columbia Daily Tribune (Missouri), October>
(all quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources)
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Ken – November 14, 2011
14 Nov 2011 22:20

P.S. I would take ward-healer for ward-heeler to be a typical example of an eggcorn unless I saw some convincing evidence to prove otherwise. Also, I did find one example of ward-heeler in the Irish Times (2011) and another in the Times (1907).
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