January 7, 2014

Is it wrong to call the man who delivers the President's talking points his "point man"?

This question came up in this morning's post about "Meet the Press," where I'd written that David Gregory introduced Gene Sperling as "President Obama's economic point man," and I quipped "He's the 'point man,' on the show to give the Administration's points."

In the comments, Kevin said:

That's not what a point man is. A point man is the soldier in a patrol who walks up front and is the first to walk into the minefield or to get shot in the face. While most ambushers will skip the point man and wait till the main body of the patrol comes into its sights, that doesn't do much to lessen the point man's peril.
I looked up "point man" in the (unlinkable) OED and discovered that the original meaning of "point man" had to do not with soldiers but cowboys: "A person who rides at the head of a herd of cattle."
1903   A. Adams Log of Cowboy iii. 28   Two riders, known as point men rode out and well back from the lead cattle.
The earliest use to refer to a soldier — specifically "A soldier positioned at the head of a patrol" — came in 1944, in the Army weekly called "Yank": "The Jap point man was on the scene before any camouflaging could be done."

Next in time is the sports usage, referring to "A player who (habitually) plays in a (particular) attacking position during offensive manoeuvres," with the earliest usage in 1951. A typical recent use is, from 2004: "The umbrella focuses on moving a point man to the center of the blue line with the other point man moving closer to the goal."

Then there's the "extended use," which is the only one relevant to Gene Sperling, meaning "a person (esp. a man) having an important and usually public position at the forefront of an activity or endeavour on behalf of an organization, political party, etc." Example from 1978, from the Guardian: "Although Carter started his term as no friend of Kennedy,..Kennedy has, ironically, become Carter's point man in the senate."

So I'd say it was fine for Gregory to call Sperling "Obama's economic point man." To say "He's the 'point man,' on the show to give the Administration's points" is to wisecrack — really to say that your defender is kind of a hack.


Unknown said...

"Point person" is also rather prosaically used to designate the individual within an organization to whom inquiries should be directed, or who is tasked with arranging meetings, scheduling, making sure everybody who should be getting information is getting it, etc.

I know of no such mundane use of the term "tail-end Charlie" though.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

I think it's racist. I mean, come on, it's got to be.

sean said...

The hockey reference doesn't really fit with the other uses. The "point" in hockey is where the blue line meets the side boards, at the very back edge of the offensive zone. Usually it is where the defensemen stand when their team is on the attack, able to retrieve a loose puck in some cases, but also able to retreat quickly if the other team counterattacks.

George M. Spencer said...

Good thing Patrick Henry had his point man test market that speech of his.

Good thing Washington had somebody else go first across the Delaware.

Good thing FDR had somebody else who had the guts to go on with life after being paralyzed.

RecChief said...
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RecChief said...

The point man in a patrol is not the cannon fodder that Kevin describes. A good point man is very observant and can think on his feet, so he doesn't lead the patrol into an ambush (although some ambushes are hard to stay out of). He's also usually a pretty steady cool headed type, and is one the more experienced riflemen in a squad, you don't want a newbie out front when you might be walking into a firefight. Which when you think about it, is a pretty good description of the qualities a person in Sperling's position should possess.

madAsHell said...

I never understood why Reggie Love was called his body man.

yeah....that's damn creepy.

At least, I understand that point man refers to the point guard from basketball....or the point man of a patrol, but I doubt Baracky understands that.

Trashhauler said...

As Wiki points out, the terms "point man" and "taking point" in the military far precede the OED example. The term was in common usage anywhere small units were sent to patrol in dangerous territory as far back as the Indian Wars.

SJ said...


I think "point man" and "point of contact (in the organization" may have merged, such that "point man" is the person who is supposed to answer an important set of questions.

It's a guess on my part, but it would make sense.

Lance said...

RecChief is right. But there's another important element missing: the point man's job is to reconnoiter immediately ahead of the formation. To that end, they stay quiet and low to the ground. The idea is to locate the enemy without being seen/heard. So while the point man is in a dangerous role, he's definitely NOT cannon fodder.

So no, as a metaphor I don't think "point man" applies very well to what Gene Sperling does. Sperling strikes me more as a diverter or spoiler.