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Dear Word Detective: Although I live near Mount St. Helens and am familiar with Bigfoot, I’ve never heard him mentioned as he was in recent CNN coverage of the crisis in Iran: “Many in the establishment view him as someone who does not cower to big-footing by the West.” Is this an idiom I’m unfamiliar with or just a poor translation? — Edward Jones.

Familiar with Bigfoot, eh? Could you tell him Nessie needs his email address? She asked me to ask. Just kidding, of course, but I had not realized that the Mount St. Helens area in Washington State is known for its Bigfoot sightings. Sounds like fun.


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“Bigfoot” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “(A name for) a large, hairy, manlike creature supposedly inhabiting the north-western United States and western Canada,” although in Canada the same critter is more commonly known by its Salishan Indian name, “sasquatch.” The use of “Bigfoot” as a name for the creature dates back to the 1950s, but “Bigfoot” as a popular nickname for a human being with very large feet dates back to at least the early 19th century.

More relevant to your question, however, is the fact that, since about 1980, “bigfoot” has been used as slang among journalists to mean “a prominent or well-known columnist or political reporter,” i.e., a “celebrity” journalist. According to an explanation offered by William Safire (himself just such a “bigfoot”) back in 1985, the term was coined as a joke during the 1980 US presidential campaign, when Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Hedrick Smith of the New York Times appeared on the press plane with his injured foot encased in a large cast.

“Bigfoot” in this sense has apparently also become a transitive verb among journalists, and I ran across it just the other day while reading writer Dan Baum’s explanation of how he came to leave the staff of the New Yorker magazine. Assigned to cover Hurricane Katrina, Baum learned that the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, would also be going to New Orleans, and confronted him, saying “You’re going to bigfoot me?” Baum defines “to bigfoot” here as “to snatch a story away from a lower-ranking reporter,” and, not surprisingly, his belligerent use of the term to Remnick turned out to be a very bad idea.

It’s possible that the use of the verb “to bigfoot” you spotted, meaning roughly “to throw one’s weight around” or “to bully,” is a further development of this journalistic slang. But it’s also possible that this geopolitical use is an entirely separate invention alluding to Bigfoot as a large, overwhelming presence that is difficult to resist.

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