Release notes: Beltway

By Benjamin Norris, Senior Assistant Editor of the OED

The lexicographical byways of the political highway

If you are British then you quite possibly have not heard of a beltway before; if you are American you might read or hear the word multiple times a day. Various television series have carried the word beyond the United States in recent years. For instance, devotees of The West Wing will certainly have encountered it, not least in the character of Arnold Vinick, the fictional Republican Senator from California, being nicknamed ‘Beltway Arnie’, and viewers of the recent adaptation of House of Cards set in Washington, D.C. will undoubtedly be familiar with the word. It has not put down any roots elsewhere, however, and remains essentially American.

Before I began investigating its usage for the OED, I had perhaps only read or heard beltway a handful of times. What fascinated me was how a relatively mundane word for what British speakers usually refer to as a ‘ring road’ was transformed into a core piece of American political jargon in just over 30 years.

The earliest example we have found of beltway in written usage dates from 1951, from an article in the Washington Post discussing an ‘estimated 40-million-dollar beltway’ around Baltimore. Earlier in the piece, the journalist takes care to refer to the road more descriptively as the ‘proposed belt highway’, implying that the word was not yet established enough to be used without some form of clarification. It therefore seems likely that this date is very close to the point of the word’s conception.

The combination of belt with way to describe a main road or highway of this type in American English was probably influenced by beltline, which had been in use since the mid-19th century as a word for a railway or tramline encircling an urban area, and by the middle of the 20th century had by extension come to be applied to a similar encircling road and become predominantly American in usage. The equivalent of beltway in British English – ring road – laid a similar semantic track.

After the completion of the Interstate 495 around Washington, D.C. in 1964 beltway quickly became closely associated with America’s capital. (Indeed, the road itself is now often referred to as the ‘Capital Beltway’.) The first signs of this appear in 1967, 16 years after the earliest written attestation of beltway, when we find Beltway bandit being used as slang term for a thief who steals from homes alongside the Capital Beltway and then utilizes it for making a quick getaway.

Besides linking beltway with Washington, D.C. and imbuing its tone with negative connotations, Beltway bandit subsequently paved the way for the word to become associated more specifically with the American government and the political world of the capital. Starting in the mid-1970s, beltway bandit was used with reference to any of the various companies engaged in securing federal government contracts for businesses in the private sector. Many such companies were originally located along the Capital Beltway and their work was viewed by those outside the industry as opportunistic and exploitative, so it is easy to see where the comparison began.

The original literal sense of Beltway bandit has since faded from view, perhaps because it described an essentially localized phenomenon. The later sense, however, has survived and thrived: probably because, being a description of sharp business practice in the heart of the nation’s political infrastructure, it was powerful and evocative enough to secure a foothold in the consciousness of the American public and media.

From this association of Beltway bandit with Washington, D.C. as the seat of the United States government, beltway subsequently became deeply engrained in the political sphere when the physical boundary that the Interstate 495 forms around Washington, D.C. began to be conceptualized abstractly as one surrounding the political and social world of the capital, as if demarcating it as a geographical zone.

Evidence of this reconceptualization of the Interstate 495 influencing the usage of beltway starts to appear in the early 1980s. In 1982, just over 30 years after the earliest written attestation of the word, we see ‘inside the Beltway’ and ‘outside the Beltway’ being used to convey whether a person or thing is part of the political and social world of Washington, D.C. or falls outside it. These phrases quickly caught the country’s imagination, being used to tar the political and social world of the capital with connotations of intellectual and social insularity by playing with the idea of the Capital Beltway dividing it from rest of the United States, and to cast those working in political and governmental roles in Washington, D.C. as disconnected from and uninterested in the rest of the country by implying that they are heedless of anything outside the Capital Beltway.

In recent years the cultural associations of these phrases have proved so resonant that beltway is now often used on its own with the same underlying idea of ‘insiders’ contrasted with ‘outsiders’ and all of the negative connotations that stem from it, as for example in ‘the gotcha politics of the Beltway’ (2006, Chicago Tribune) and ‘that self-feeding and self-regarding Beltway culture’ (1992, Time). Today the word is as prominent in American political discourse as the conceptually similar Westminster bubble is in that of Britain, if not more so.

The story of how beltway developed from its concrete origins to occupy a prominent place in the language of American politics in just a couple of decades provides a striking example of how even a relatively mundane word can take on resonant and enduring cultural associations. It also serves to show that the historical approach of the OED is just as valuable in the case of a recent addition to the language as it is in those of the thousands of words with which speakers have been expressing themselves for centuries.