The muscularity of Hillary Clinton

AnemoneProjectors, Wikimedia

A reporter for The Atlantic got in trouble recently for agreeing, in 2009, to receive an advance copy of a Hillary Clinton speech in return for calling it “muscular.”

A reporter for The New York Times also used the word “muscular” for the same speech, but told the public editor that there was no deal. “My use of the word muscular may have reflected a lack of originality,” the reporter said, “but it did not reflect collusion.”

The reporter continued that he was trying to use “muscular” less frequently because “it’s been reasonably criticized as a value-laden term and it’s a good idea to stay away from it.”

To use a journalistic cliché, these reporters are not alone. The Daily News in New York said of that same speech that Clinton “stacked the room with aides and her team talked up the ‘muscular’ approach she would take toward Iran.” The Boston Globe, compiling its article from wires, apparently used The Times’ phrasing and noted the “muscular tone and sweeping scope” of the speech. On CNN’s American Morning program, John Roberts noted: “The speech was billed by her aides as ‘muscular.’ ” In other words, the chances are that the speech would have been called “muscular” whether it was part of a deal or not.

In that same month, July 2009, The Washington Post said Clinton, then Secretary of State, was speaking tougher about Thailand, “one of several muscular statements she made on her trip to Asia apparently to demarcate her positions more clearly than before.” (The Post columnist referred to a Times account written by the same “muscular” reporter, who did not use that word in covering the Thailand speech.) And even before the speech under discussion, CNN’s Gloria Borger, asking whether Clinton had been sidelined by the White House, said: “she may have wanted a more muscular response on Iran but the president was the one who had to decide to pull the trigger on that.”

We’ll stop now, before we become musclebound.

Regardless of the politics or ethics involved in the particular case, using “muscular” to describe an inanimate object is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that seems more popular in the United States than elsewhere. The Oxford English Dictionary does not even have a relevant definition, except in the figurative use “muscular Christian,” “concerned with or devoted to good works and social issues,” or “setting store by the moral benefits of physical exercise; energetic and outgoing.” The New Oxford American Dictionary has a figurative meaning that comes closer to the way Clinton (or her aides) meant it: “vigorously robust: a muscular economy.

Dictionary.com’s entry, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, lists as its “muscular” fourth definition “vigorously and forcefully expressed, executed, performed, etc., as if by the use of a great deal of muscular power: a muscular response to terrorism.

Even so, “muscular” has a very masculine tone and many of its synonyms conjure the lunk in the gym: “beefy,” “brawny,” “burly,” “strapping.” The synonyms that would fit are “robust,” “strong,” and “powerful.” But those may be too common for someone seeking a more “muscular” term.

If the word “muscular” is “value-laden,” as the Times reporter said, many journalists are weighed down: In just the past six months, and just in The Times, “muscular” has been used multiple times in reviews (to describe voices, compositions, brushstrokes, or even a type font) as well as many times in reference to foreign policy and other weighty matters. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of hits in articles not in The Times.

If, as the Times public editor says, “muscular” “tends to equate a hawkish foreign policy with a good foreign policy,” it’s not clear that most readers outside the Beltway get that. More are likely to envision the Incredible Hulk than a hawk.

Regardless, it’s clear that the frequent flexing of “muscular” means it has joined the journalistic pantheon of clichés. Welcome to the gym, er, club.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.