Former President George H.W. Bush used a choice word when describing his son’s vice president.
“He just became very hard-line and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with,” Bush told biographer Jon Meacham. After Sept. 11, Bush told Meacham, Cheney became “just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.”
The epithet — “iron ass” — sounded vintage so it made us wonder where it came from. Unfortunately, the authority on the English language — the Oxford American Dictionary — doesn’t include the word.
Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, however, said that from what she was able to dig up, the term seems to come from the World War II era.
Indeed, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English dates the noun — meaning a “stern, demanding, unrelenting person” — back to 1942.
That’s when the epithet was used for Curtis L. LeMay, a notoriously obstinate Air Force general, who became famous for his work during World War II.
In the book War Made New, Max Boot writes that LeMay went into Europe knowing little about flying in combat. But he drove his men hard — thus the epithet — and he came up with several tactical ideas that would become standard for the United States Air Force.
Later in his life, he was known as an extreme militarist. Boot writes:
“He was widely suspected of wanting to start another world war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when he was Air Force chief of staff. His statement in 1965, following his retirement, that the U.S. should bomb North Vietnam ‘back into the Stone Age,’ would become emblematic in certain circles of Neanderthal thinking.”
Connie Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was kind enough to consult her edition of Jonathan Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which only exists in print.
She reports that Lighter’s traces the epithet back to World War II, as well. Lighter’s says it is a variant of “old iron pants,” the nickname used for Gen. George Patton, who was, of course, famously “audacious and profane” and terrifically skilled in tank warfare.
One the most telling incidents happened when the U.S. entered Europe and he slapped two hospitalized American soldiers. As The New York Times wrote in his obit, Patton was angry that the men did not have visible wounds so he slapped them and also unleashed a string of “unprintable epithets.” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower reprimanded him.
In a lot of ways, the descriptions of the two men is very much in line with the way Bush described Cheney — a man whom he said took to the role of vice president in a very different way than he himself had approached his time as vice president. Bush said that Cheney was a “good man” but that he crossed the line.
“He had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer,” Bush said. “It just showed me that you cannot do it that way. The president should not have that worry.”
Brewster also points out that Simón Bolívar, who spurred revolutions across Latin America in the 1800s, was also referred to as “culo de hierro,” or iron ass.