“Theresa May’s honeymoon is masking her many vulnerabilities” — Andrew Rawnsley

Now the silly season is over (except in Labour Party elections), Rawnsley is back, bright and bushy-tailed. However he starts with a journo’s dissimulating mock-stutter:

I have been trying – so far, I confess, without success – to discover who minted the phrase “political honeymoon”. It is a strange expression: marriage is rarely an appropriate metaphor for a country’s relationship with its leader. It describes an odd quirk of electorates. The public tell pollsters that they are most enthusiastically in favour of a leader in his or her opening period in office, precisely the time when voters know least about the person who has just taken charge.

If we must look only at the two-word cliché, I’d suggest referring to the numerous histories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He could, of course, have simply looked up the expression, though that might have bust his word-limit. On which, may I selflessly advocate the local borough library. Get a library card (today it’s just another of those debit/credit card shapes that fill our wallets) and use its number to log on to the on-line resources. My standbys are the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of National Biography. Now, if only I could equally access, for free, the untold wealth of JSTOR

With the OED we find a healthy history of how the “honeymoon” metaphor evolved:

1.a. The period immediately following marriage, as characterized by love and happiness. Later also: a period of love and happiness at the beginning of a similar relationship. Now chiefly with reference to the ending of such a period. In early use also without article.

Let’s pass over that swiftly, except to note the cynical Now chiefly with reference to the ending of such a period.

We move on to:

b. An initial period of friendly relations, goodwill, or enthusiasm. Freq. in political contexts. Now chiefly with reference to the ending of such a period.In early use also without article.

Hello! Something of interest there already! The earliest citing for 1.a. is 1546, in John Heywood’s collection of English proverbs, or rather (since the 16th century never did anything concisely — though this being the 1562 “second edition”):

A dialogue conteyning the number of the effectuall prouerbes in the Englishe tounge, compact in a matter concernynge two maner of maryages. With one hundred of Epigrammes, and three hundred of Epigrammes vpon three hundred prouerbes; and a fifth hundred of Epigrams. Wherevnto are now newly added a syxt hundred of Epigrams, by the sayde John Heywood.

“Honey moon”, then was current before the mid-sixteenth century — which may say something about the English conceit of “romantic love”

Then we see, again from that OED entry, that it had pretty soon become a metaphor Freq. in political contexts. The third citation under 1.b is explicitly political:

1655    T. Fuller Church-hist. Brit.  iv. 158   Kingdoms have their honey-moon, when new Princes are married unto them.

Which we can acquire on-line.

Just that citation was used by  for The Washington Times, reflecting (18 November 2008) on the election of Barrack Obama:

… my attitude towards the president-elect is utterly dissimilar to what I experienced on my real honeymoon. I didn’t chose him, I don’t trust him (if he knows of me he doubtlessly reciprocates such sentiments), and I don’t look forward to a long relationship with him.

The only part of the metaphor I can relate to is the bit about “comparing the mutual affection of newly-married persons to the changing moon which is no sooner full than it begins to wane.” By my calculation, that means that the honeymoon will be over by December 4th. In fact, already, my positive passions are feeling rather “wane.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary the early references to the political honeymoon metaphor start in 1655 (Fuller): “Kingdoms have their honeymoon, when new Princes are married unto them”; 1795 (Burke) “Spain, in the honey-moon of her new servitude”; and 1867 (Goldwin, Smith) “The brief honeymoon of the new king and his parliament.” In each of those early examples, the circumstances of the honeymoon are mandatory, begrudging and short. I think Burke’s best catches the moment (“the honey-moon of her servitude”).

Since that is the Washington Times (i.e. the voice of Sun Ayung Moon‘s Unification Church), rather than the other daily newspaper, one of record and respect, from DC, we can pay as little regard as we can.

Except, then, Blankly’s reputation has not enhanced as Obama’s has. Yet Blankly (deceased, mainly to be recalled as Speaker Newt Gingrich‘s public organ) does come up with a decent point:

It is curious how the sexual metaphor – with all its ambiguities – is often used in politics.

I’d guess Blankly is referring precisely to “political honeymoon”, but were we to consider just how often sexual expressions get used in political contexts, wow! there is can of worms.


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Filed under Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, Oxford English Dictionary, politics, Tories.

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