Photo: Courtesy Chicago Elevated
Clout wasn’t always called clout.
The word seems like a permanent fixture of Chicago politics, but it wasn’t originally part of the local lexicon. There was a different word that everyone used in the late 1800s and early 1900s for political influence in city government:
Here are some examples of how the word was used:
An 1894 Chicago Tribune article speculated that the famously corrupt politician Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna was losing his influence: “Apparently His ‘Pull’ Has Lost Its Old-Time Power.”
In 1901, a reporter explained how robbery victims could get justice in Chicago: “I am assured that a man, who has been robbed in a known joint and goes to the police station to complain, is pretty likely to get his money back when his ‘pull’ is stronger than the joint’s.”
In 1903, police Superintendent Francis O’Neill said that his officers were feeling pressure from politicians who wanted to protect certain criminals. “There is hardly a case in which the police do not have to fight some ‘pull,’” O’Neill said.
In 1904, the Chicago Record-Herald quoted a reformer remarking: “The reason some saloons are not closed at midnight is because the saloonkeepers or their friends have a ‘pull.’” (In this case, note the peculiar way the word is used with an article in front of it — “a pull.” It was more common for people to call it “pull,” plain and simple.)
And in 1912, when Jack Johnson, the African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, was arrested on trumped-up morality charges—essentially, for dating a white woman—a Chicago newspaper called The Day Book made this remarkable assertion: “Johnson’s political pull in Chicago is so great that nothing can be done with him here.”
Some more Tribune headlines from over the years:
- “IT IS PULL VS. MERIT” (1895)
- “SHARKS PAY FOR CITY HALL PULL” (1900)
- “ALD.TEARNEY RUNS LAWLESS SALOON; DEPENDS ON ‘PULL’” (1912)
- “POLITICAL PULL SMOOTHS PATH TO POLICE JOBS” (1946)
Now that the complete run of the Tribune is searchable online—and available to anyone with a Chicago Public Library card—it’s possible to trace the rise and fall of words. Between 1880 and 1945, the expression “political pull” appeared in the newspaper 607 times. During those same years, “political clout” didn’t show up a single time.
“Political clout” appeared in the Tribune for the first time in 1946, in a story about hoodlums seizing control of the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union. One of the alleged thugs, Matt Breen, reportedly told a union official: “It’s tough, Tom, that you can’t understand that I’m the boss now over all iron workers. I’ve got a political ‘clout’ that’s bigger than you imagine.”
Over the next 40 years, “clout” pulled ahead of “pull” in Chicago’s vocabulary. “Pull” must have started to sound bland in comparison with this more visceral and menacing word. The Trib referred to “political clout” 762 times between 1946 and 1985, compared to 121 instances of “political pull” over that same period.
Of course, these weren’t the only times that the newspaper used the words “pull” and “clout” to describe political influence. Most of the time, the modifier “political” wasn’t necessary. If you wrote about “pull” or “clout” at City Hall, readers knew what you meant. But searching for the word “pull” by itself wouldn’t prove much. It has many other meanings, making it difficult to pinpoint how many times it was used with the political definition.
Clout, on the other hand, just isn’t quite as common of a word. It originally meant “a patch of cloth,” and it later came to mean “a heavy blow.” That was the definition Chicago author James T. Farrell had in mind when he wrote his Studs Lonigan trilogy in the 1930s. “They gave the guy the clouts, and left him moaning in the alley,” he wrote.
So when and where did clout become a term for political influence?
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang suggests it was in New York, citing an 1868 letter Walt Whitman received from his brother, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, about some Brooklyn guys who “always think they are going to be deprived of office and ‘clout.’” But it’s curious that the term barely surfaced at all for another eighty years.
Surely, some Chicagoans were using the term “clout” in the political sense before it popped up in that 1945 Tribune report. Just where had that guy, Matt Breen, heard the word? “Clout” had already appeared in the Tribune more than four thousand times by that point, but it had never been juxtaposed with the adjective “political.” It was usually used to describe someone clobbering someone else—or a baseball slugger hitting a home run. Evidence of the word’s evolution could be hidden somewhere in those 4,000 articles. (It will require stamina and tenacity for any etymologist to mine that mound of PDFs for useful nuggets, but here it is.)
For anyone who was still unclear on the concept, Mike Royko explained “What Clout Is and Isn’t” in a 1973 Chicago Daily News column. Royko defined Chicago clout as “political influence, as exercised through patronage, fixing, money, favors, and other traditional City Hall methods.” And he offered some examples of how the word was used in conversation:
- “Nah, I don’t need a building permit—I got clout in City Hall.”
- “Hey, Charlie, I see you made foreman. Who’s clouting for you?”
- “Lady, just tell your kid not to spit on the floor during trial and he’ll get probation. I talked to my clout and he talked to the judge.”
Note that “clout” sometimes refers to a specific person with influence. As in “my clout.” And sometimes it’s a verb—meaning to exert your influence. If you’re the beneficiary of clout, it’s a good thing to be “clouted.” That doesn’t mean anyone hit you. It means that someone with clout got you a job or a government contract.
“Clout is used to circumvent the law, not to enforce it,” Royko wrote. “It is used to bend rules, not follow them.” Note that Royko defined clout as influence being used for nefarious purposes. The way Royko saw it, political influence used for good and legal purposes didn’t qualify as clout.
In 1975, TV newsman Len O’Connor emblazoned the word on the cover of his book, Clout: Mayor Daley and His City. In 1983, the word appeared in the Tribune 809 times, an all-time high. By that point, reporters were almost always using it in the political sense. There weren’t as many headlines anymore about clout on the baseball diamond or in the boxing ring.
In the years since, “political clout” has continued to pummel its old rival in the city’s vocabulary, appearing in the Tribune’s pages 28 times more often than “political pull.”
These days, pull just doesn’t have much clout.
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