Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

AstroTurf v. grass roots

with 9 comments

astroturf shadow bailey 2

Image by zen via Flickr

I am the first to admit that I don’t have my finger on the pulse when it comes to neologisms. However, I’m sure my reader (Gladys) and her cat will forgive me if they have already heard this one. I recently came across it in the Guardian online:

The Tea Party movement is remarkable in two respects. It is one of the biggest exercises in false consciousness the world has seen – and the biggest Astroturf operation in history.

Interestingly, the writer, George Monbiot, finds it necessary to explain his use of the word ‘Astroturf’ (so I don’t have to):

An Astroturf campaign is a fake grassroots movement: it purports to be a spontaneous uprising of concerned citizens, but in reality it is founded and funded by élite interests. Some Astroturf campaigns have no grassroots component at all. Others catalyse and direct real mobilisations. The Tea Party belongs in the second category.

The inclusion of this explanation in the article raises an interesting question: is there any point in using an expression that your readers might not understand? I’d say no. And while we’re at it, what does ‘false consciousness’ actually mean? I don’t know why, but part of a Macbeth speech just popped into my mind: …full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Nothing new and trademarks

I’ve discovered that this use of the word ‘AstroTurf’ isn’t new, because it’s been listed on Urban Dictionary since 2004.

You’ll note that in the Guardian piece, ‘Astroturf’ is capitalised. This is a less than careful acknowledgement that the term is, in fact, a trademark. I say less than careful, because it should actually be written: ‘AstroTurf’.

Also (you can see I’m at a loose end today), ‘grassroots’ is listed as ‘grass roots’ in the Oxford Dictionary of English, or hyphenated when used as a modifier in such phrases as: ‘getting involved at grass-roots level’.  I’ll go and get a life now.

Neologisms – more new words and phrases



9 Responses

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  1. Hmm . . . If you use a word or phrase that you feel needs explanation, then it’s best, perhaps, to find an alternative.


    10/11/2010 at 5:21 pm

    • Yes, I definitely think so. Thanks, Ron.


      10/11/2010 at 5:51 pm

  2. Well, I’ll be. I thought that astro-turf, or astro turf or astroturf was that psychedelic green stuff that groovy people laid down in their backyards in the 70’s and is still used on football fields.


    10/11/2010 at 10:33 pm

    • Hi, Jo — I think it’s still that too!


      11/11/2010 at 6:43 am

  3. Hi back at you! I laughed at your snippet from Macbeth; That describes my thoughts exactly, as I listened to an opposing lawyer’s submission to the court, yesterday :/ And I agree with Ron, if people have to go trolling through dictionaries to understand what you’re trying to say, lose the expression.


    11/11/2010 at 12:05 pm

  4. So great having you back! I should’ve checked the date on the article, but if you saw it in the Guardian, that explains it. Over here in the Colonies, the Left, many of them far to the right of your Left, have been using the word before the inception of what we disdainfully call “tea baggers.” Hey, they called themselves that before they knew what it was! The word “astroturf” was being used when oil companies had employees posing as “the public” with the “Drill, Baby, Drill.” This is three years before BP spilled milk. Point is: I would imagine a Brit would feel it necessary to inform the meaning of what is American Political Terms. My point of “grass roots?” You just ain’t gonna win support on a grass-roots level if you get bent out of shape and hung up on grammar and such. Since my conversion to teaching English in all its forms and glory, I’ve learned to loosen up. I’m willing to be taken to the woodshed if it means, politically, I get through to one more person. Again, been away for awhile, you were away, and I’m glad you are back! Sweet tides, and full of errors, Linda


    25/01/2011 at 4:44 am

    • I’m glad you’re back too — and thank you for your sweet tides and kind words.

      I have a feeling that ‘AstroTurf’ is not going to catch on much here — I could be wrong, but it’s always a bad sign when the writer has to explain an expression they’ve used.


      25/01/2011 at 7:13 am

  5. Now’s here’s something considered American, a spaghetti western tune performed by a group on your side of the pond. I liked it so much, I posted it…http://tinyurl.com/6eekyoy


    25/01/2011 at 5:07 am

    • That’s exactly what we need around here — some music! Thank you!


      25/01/2011 at 7:07 am

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