For a rusty chunk of Middle English first uttered in the 1300s, “lodestar” is making a surprise comeback.
On Wednesday, the New York Times published a bombshell op-ed penned by an anonymous White House senior official on the intra-administration efforts to slam the brakes on President Trump’s worst inclinations and ideas. The revelation of a resistance movement bubbling inside the West Wing opposing Trump on the basis of his “amorality” triggered a madcap race to identify the writer. Who is this nameless being rising triumphantly from the Washington swamp?
The identity could be there in the writing. Commentators and armchair linguists started squeezing the text for clues, like graduate students sweating over “Finnegans Wake.” One of the stranger pieces of verbiage to jump out of the piece was “lodestar.” “We may no longer have Senator [John] McCain,” the writer opined. “But we will always have his example - a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue.”
The term - “a star that leads or guides,” Merriam-Webster tells us, “one that serves as an inspiration, model, or guide” - was one of the top trending topics on Twitter within hours of publication on Wednesday.
It syncs with a larger truth of the Trump era. In hyperactive bursts, unlikely figures and phrases are suddenly mainlined with new meaning. Republicans James Comey (“Comey Is My Homey”) and Robert Mueller (“It’s Mueller Time”) are now progressive heroes. The costumes from Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” have become symbols of women’s rights.
Now, “lodestar” has become a rallying cry for the anti-Trump camp.
The feverish speculation has even settled on Vice President Mike Pence as the in-house op-ed writer. On Thursday morning, NBC News reported Pence’s office had officially denied involvement with the piece. The guessing game, however, continued.
But the archaic SAT prep word might not be as much of a tell as many assume. “Lodestar” is a fairly common phrase - if you are a dead medieval English poet, or a Washington politician.
“ ‘Lodestar’ for honor has been a cliche for 500 years,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Washington Post.
Liberman said the word may have originated as a navigational term, another way of referring to the North Star.
The Oxford English Dictionary, the word-nerd Bible, pinpoints the first written usages of “lodestar,” or “lode sterre,” to 1374 and the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, regarded as the father of English literature and author of “The Canterbury Tales.” The dictionary cites the writer’s epic poem “Troilus and Criseyde”:
“Biesche I yow myn hertes lady fre,” Chaucer wrote, in Middle English that today reads like a good impression of a Russian Twitter bot. “That herevpon ye wolden wryte me. For loue of god my righte lode sterre.”
According to the OED, the original meaning for the term was, “A star that shows the way; esp the pole star.” However, within a few hundred years, the word gained symbolic weight.
“Going back to the 14th or 15th century, there’s a metaphoric use referring to not the pole star but to any principle or person or idea or goal used for guidance,” Liberman said. “If you want to flatter someone or say something nice about someone or about some principle as the source of guidance, then you call them or it a ‘lodestar.’ ”
Liberman pointed to how the writer Raphael Holinshed employed the term metaphorically when describing Henry V in 1586:
“Knowen be it therefore, of person and forme was this prince rightlie representing his heroicall affects, of stature and proportion tall and manlie, rather leane than grose, somewhat long necked and blacke haired, of countenance amiable, eloquent and graue was his spéech, and of great grace and power to persuade: for conclusion, a maiestie was he that both liued & died a paterne in princehood, a lode-starre in honour, and mirrour of magnificence: the more highlie exalted in his life, the more déepelie lamented at his death, and famous to the world alwaie.”
The link between lodestar and honor, or using the term for a guiding moral light rather than an actual navigational tool, stuck. “That stuff has not really changed at all in 600 years,” Liberman said.
Similarly, politicians and “lodestar” have a long-standing relationship.
“In a situation where you want to invoke the idea of a fixed guiding principle that you can always orient yourself to no matter what else confusing seems to be happening, it’s a useful metaphor,” Liberman said.
One of the earliest fans of using “lodestar” in modern-day American politics appears to be former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp.
During a speech in 1989, Kemp described home-ownership as the “lodestar, . . . the guiding light” of his era at HUD. In a 1991 interview with The Washington Post, Kemp also used “lodestar” while listing his achievements. Eight years later, when discussing gun control with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Kemp dropped the word again.
“Every one of us has a responsibility to help turn this country toward the right lodestar for the 21st century,” he said at the time.
As years passed, “lodestar” continued to make fleeting appearances in political rhetoric, showing up in 2000 during a press briefing about President Bill Clinton’s historic trip to Vietnam. Sandy Berger, who served as Clinton’s national security adviser, told reporters that the United States had “a clear lodestar” while working to repair relations between the two countries.
This is also by no means only an American phenomenon. Liberman pointed out the word frequently crops up in North Korean propaganda as well. Earlier this year, in a statement praising Kim Jong Un’s “peerlessly great” efforts at bringing the two Koreas together, the North Korean government referred to the dictator as “the sun of the nation and lodestar of national reunification.”
But perhaps the one American politician who loves to say “lodestar” the most is Pence. A search of the word and Pence’s name in news archives returned more than 200 hits. Whether he was on the floor as a congressman during a U.S. House committee hearing or speaking on the presidential campaign trail, Pence managed to work “lodestar” into a slew of public addresses and statements.
In a 2005 interview with CNN, Pence called for “turning this ship of state back to the lodestar of a balanced federal budget.” This wouldn’t be the only time for Pence to use lodestar when referring to the budget, repeating the word in the same context in 2009 and again in 2011.
Pence also invoked the reverent term to talk about Kemp, his fellow “lodestar” lover. When the HUD secretary was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, Pence wrote an open letter calling Kemp’s “optimistic belief in the American dream - in the power of free markets and entrepreneurial capitalism” a “lodestar to my nascent political career.”
Outside of the political sphere, Pence still found use for the word, including it in a 2009 Father’s Day message.
“My father, Edward J. Pence, has been gone for more than 20 years, but he is still a part of my life,” the statement said. “His values, his love, his devotion to family are still lodestars for me.”
But Pence’s frequent use of “lodestar,” the word, may not mean he’s the anonymous op-ed writer-turned resistance hero. For one thing, the Times said the writer’s job “would be jeopardized” if exposed. As a constitutional officer of the government, the vice president cannot be fired, only impeached.
In May, an anonymous White House leaker explained to Axios that it’s common practice for sources to keep their ears tuned to the verbal tics of their co-workers. That way, when their own words appear in the media, they can lay a false trail for leak-hunters.
“To cover my tracks, I usually pay attention to other staffers’ idioms and use that in my background quotes,” the official told Axios. “That throws the scent off me.”
So, “lodestar” easily could have picked up Pence’s propensity for the term and dropped it in the Times as a feint.
Liberman, the linguistics professor, also cautions against trying to tie “lodestar” to the writer’s potential identity on the basis of a single text.
“It’s hard to do authorship attribution on this document,” he said. “Many of the people who would be on the list of potential authors, the information that we have on their previous works include both some things that they wrote and things that staffers and speechwriters wrote for them.”