Anatomy of a Catchphrase

All of a sudden, it is impossible to pick up the paper or listen to the news and escape “the long game.” I’m not talking about coverage of golf or other actual games, but to this sort of thing:

  • The example of guitarist Doc Watson should “serve as inspiration to any musician interested in the long game, in making music that endures not because of its shock value or its keen marketplace vision but because within its measured tones lies universal truth.” Los Angeles Times, June 3.
  • “I mean, [Queen Elizabeth] has played the long game better than anyone one can think of. I mean, she has understood from the beginning, for instance, even not to become too celebrated and popular.” Tina Brown, speaking on NPR’s Morning Edition, June 1.
  • “[Lawrence] Summers’s talent was for influencing a particular decision at a particular moment. He was not someone with a flair for the long game—for the week-in, week-out slog of bringing colleagues around to his views.” Noam Scheiber, The Escape Artists: How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery.
  • “And ALEC, even more than other movement-conservative organizations, is clearly playing a long game.” Paul Krugman, The New York Times, March 26.

Speaking of the Times, I charted the newspaper’s nonsporting “long game” uses and came up with this:

1892-2005, inclusive: 6

2006: 3

2007: 1

2008: 0

2009: 5

2010: 8 (including Barack Obama, at a December news conference on his tax plan: “To my Democratic friends, what I’d suggest is, let’s make sure that we understand this is a long game. This is not a short game.”)

2011: 8

Where did this expression come from? Why is it so popular? The second question is relatively easy to answer. It is a vivid metaphor for an idea that frequently comes up in consideration of politics, business, and other human endeavors: to wit, the possession and use of a long-term strategy. (The very phrase long-term,” so flat and overplayed, suggests the need for a replacement.) It sounds British, always a good thing. And catchphrases, no less than videos or memes, have the capacity to go viral: to attain uncanny popularity at the drop of a dime.

But where did the long game” come from? My investigation (admittedly not exhaustive) suggests that it is indeed of British origin. Certainly there are plentiful uses in such sources as The Economist, The Times (of London), and The Times Literary Supplement. The most common contexts have been diplomacy, espionage, and statecraft, as in a 1944 comment in The Times that “ … so well and successfully have conspirators played the long game.” But it’s been used in all sorts of ways. In 1917 an anonymous author in The TLS intriguingly commented, “We are reminded of a pregnant saying of Hart’s that the long game is the Church’s game.” A 2005 episode of the BBC series Dr. Who was titled “The Long Game,” as was a posthumous collection by the Australian poet Bruce Beaver published the same year.

Using Google Books as my Wayback Machine, I came upon this 1860 quote, in the journal The Athenaeum: “… to continue speculations, in the soundness or unsoundness of all who play  ‘the long game’ are interested.” The quotation marks around the phrase were a smoking gun, indicating recent coinage. And sure enough, when I went back just a little farther, I hit pay dirt in Bohn’s New Hand-book of Games, published in 1856. In the section on whist, the book notes, “In playing the long game, when both sides mark five, they are precisely in the same position with those parties who are beginning the short game.”

It turns out that the long game and the short game are variants of whist. Chamber’s Encyclopedia explains: “About 1785 the experiment of dividing the game into half was tried, and short whist was the result. The short game soon came into favour; and in 1864 the supremacy of short whist was acknowledged.”

Apparently, just as the long game was losing its popularity as a game, it came into its own as a metaphor. It took the Yanks a century and a half to catch up. Clearly we don’t like to rush into anything.


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