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Watch out for rug burn

Having absented myself from the political blogs and analyses over the past few days, I was puzzled today to see the word astroturf crop up in references to the tea party protests about federal spending and taxes.

A moment of reflection led to the obvious conclusion, that astroturf protest was being set up in opposition to grass-roots protest to suggest that today’s events are an artificially concocted stunt rather than a genuine popular uprising.

Determining whether that is the case or not is outside my writ, but I am impressed by the rapidity with which the term has taken off — a tea bag astroturf search on Google turns up more than 12,000 hits.

AstroTurf, let me remind you, is a capitalized trade name, though it was already well on its way to becoming a lowercased generic word before today’s brouhaha.

Though I saw John Waters’ film Pecker and understand what the term teabagging means in gay bars, I lack an impulse to explain it on these premises. But if you are involved in these protests, I advise you to make a careful distinction between tea bag (n.) and tea bag (v.).



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:28 PM | | Comments (4)


This sense of "astroturf" has been around for a few years at least. It's usually used to refer to companies that pay people to go onto websites, forums, or what have you and leave promotional comments that seem to come from random people. "If you like bread, you should try the bread at Safeway! They bake it fresh every day." might be one example. (I do not endorse Safeway's bread, by the way.)

The term "astroturf" has been used in this way for a little while, actually. I have no idea who first used the term, but I remember seeing it for the first time on a relatively popular political blog during an election cycle. If I had to guess, I'd say it was in 2004 when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth popped up. Like this example, when I've seen the term it has been applied to organizations whose intent is to appear "grass-roots" despite being created or funded by larger entities who have a specific agenda.

In the NYT for 11/24/1995, we've got:

"Business groups have become sophisticated about using boiler-room telephone operations in Washington to create the semblance of a grass-roots advocacy campaign. One such "Astroturf" campaign was last summer's fight over the telecommunications law, in which long-distance telephone companies flooded Congress with more than half a million telegrams ostensibly sent by citizens urging the House not to rewrite the law."

Linguist List says 1985.

Aug. 7, 1985, Washington Post: "A fellow from Texas can tell the
difference between grass roots and Astro Turf," Sen. Lloyd Bentsen
(D-Tex.) said of his mountain of cards and letters from opponents of
the insurance provisions. "This is generated mail."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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