During the recent partial government shutdown, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly called President Donald Trump's demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding a "nonstarter." At the time, those of us shivering in the extreme cold in the Midwest and Northeast immediately thought of the nonstarters in our driveways and garages — ice-encrusted vehicles that emitted only the whine of the starter motor — or dead silence — when we turned the key.
In fact, this term originated not with automobiles but with horses. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its first appearance in print to 1865, when it was used to describe a horse unable to start in a race. We still employ this original meaning when we talk about players who are "starters" and "nonstarters" on sports teams.
The first metaphorical use of "nonstarter" to mean "something that has no chance of being accepted or successful" came in this sentence from a 1942 British book: "That is one reason why non-intervention is such a non-starter."
The popularity of the term in Britain grew gradually during the 1950s and then got a jump-start during the 1960s from "University Challenge," a TV quiz show in which teams from British colleges competed. The show's original emcee, the delightfully named Bamber Gascoigne, began each round by announcing, "Starter, for 10 points," and would occasionally describe a subsequent question as a "nonstarter."
We Yanks, who are always eager to import trendy Briticisms, began deploying the term metaphorically during the 1970s. The earliest American use in a political context that I could find came in a New York Times column by John P. Lewis from Dec. 9, 1971: "The premise of undivided Pakistan's sovereign integrity ... has been a nonstarter."
The two spellings, "non-starter" and "nonstarter," have coexisted peacefully for decades; Brits tend to prefer the hyphenated version, Americans the non-hyphenated. My recent Google Ngram search for the two spellings' usage worldwide revealed that "nonstarter" has been gaining on "non-starter" in recent years and is now used about 60 percent of the time.
"Nonstarter" is certainly not the most elegant word, and like its fellow negatives "no-brainer," "no-nonsense" and "no-frills," has become a cliche. But it's less clunky than its synonyms "no-go," "dud" and "loser." So, if you're trying to convey the idea that something is DOA, "nonstarter" is probably a good place to ... well, start. Thank you, Bamber!
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.