Those Who Can’t “Kick the Can”

All sides use the same macho male term to describe what just happened at the Minnesota Legislature – the other guys “kicked the can down the road.” Girls generally conjure  more elegant and precise terms to describe the political escape tactic.  At the nub, kicking the can down the road is a rudimentary way to delay the resolution of a problem in the hope that it will either disappear or, better yet, come back to haunt the incumbent in next election.

When I realized that hearing the phrase one more time would drive me round the bend, I took therapeutic action.  English major that I am I often seek solace by tracking the origin of an expression that is inane, inaccurate, or and just plain ugly.

Though the game Kick the Can has long kept poor kids out of serious trouble, use of the term by the elite is relatively recent.  (One can only surmise how the phrase migrated up the classes.)

One observer holds that the expression first appeared in print in 1988 in William Safire’s “On Language” column in the New York Times.  Safire quoted the use of the metaphor by arms negotiator Max Kampelman.  Five years later Safire brings it up again:  “A reporter asked US Secretary of State Colin Powell, returning from a trip to the Middle East, about the ‘road map’ agreement.  “Isn’t it just kicking the can farther down the road, putting off the most difficult issues, particularly settlements?

As always, Powell was ready:  “At least we have a can in the road,” replied Powell, reared in New York and familiar with the children’s game.  “The can is in the road now, and we will start moving it down the road, perhaps with little kicks as opposed to a 54-yarder.”

From there on the metaphor goes mainstream – when President Clinton wanted to resolve Middle East problems sooner rather than later, he lamented that for “some foreign policy problems the answer is to kick the can down the road and wait for them to get better and hope time takes care of them.”  Jim Lehrer wrote that he was “too old to play kick the can anymore.”  Diplomats found kicking the can an easy shorthand phrase.   In 2005 political analyst Ross K. Baker uses, then defines, the term: “They kicked the can down the road.  They basically postponed a crisis and set up the predicate for another one in the future.” (Washington Post, May 24 2005

President Obama came out of the chute armed with the recycled image.  Referring to his efforts to seek a bipartisan solution to Social Security solvency the President stressed “What we have done is kicked this can down the road.  We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further (New York Times,  2-2-23-2009

In this political crisis, Minnesota solons have embraced the metaphor as they have eschewed the burden of can possession.  Their over-use of a cant expression suggests a lamentable degree of diction-deprivation (diction accurately defined here as choice of words.”

Language matters.  The kick the can metaphor is hackneyed and meaningless.  Could we change the political dynamic by drafting a resolution to make “Kick the Can Down the Road” the Official Metaphor of the State of Minnesota – we’d probably never hear the phrase again – for one thing, we would spend eons determining the road down which the can would be kicked…


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