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Suppose there are two vice presidents vying for influence/supremacy within an organization.

One vice president is admittedly weaker than the other, so he forms an alliance with a powerful underling who can tip the balance and make him (his team) the stronger.

Is there a word for this third person, the underling on Team B, whose involvement would tip the balance?

I'm thinking of a politically-charged word like "power-broker", but in a more subservient role. (Power brokers pull the marionette strings, whereas this fellow is talent.)

Note: I would create the tag "mot-juste" but I presently lack the required rep.

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A related term is last straw, but that is usually used to refer to something that tips the balance into disastrous consequences. (And I'm not sure we want mot-juste as a label on an Anglais site.) –  bib Jan 14 at 16:44
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I don't think it's the right answer, but "tiebreaker" comes to mind... –  Soylent Green Jan 14 at 16:50
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@bib I understand your point, but "perfect word" is not a common idiom in English, whilst "mot-juste" is -- in English. –  gibberish Jan 14 at 16:52
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@gibberish Peut-être. –  bib Jan 14 at 16:54
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I came here from the network "hot questions" list expecting a question about a person who tips the server at a restaurant and provides the balance of the transaction, e.g. when the boss asks the employees to each chip in $x and he covers the remainder and the tip. –  Michael Jan 14 at 22:31

16 Answers 16

The closest I can think of is upsetter, "an unexpected winner; someone who defeats the favorite competitor." I'll keep thinking.

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The 'breaker' also comes to mind as in 'equilibrium breaker' or 'deal breaker' but I think the word should also cover anything that could upset/violate/tilt/destroy/tip/break the balance of power. –  Ritesh Jan 14 at 18:34
    
'Disequilibrial' is also used for 'equilibrium breaker' (or a disequilibrium agent). I couldn't find it in a dictionary but the google returns several results. See for example: books.google.com/… –  Ritesh Jan 14 at 19:00

If the alliance is not one that would normally occur, strange bedfellow might fit, as in Politics makes strange bedfellows, attributed to Charles Dudley Warner.

Strange bedfellows goes back to at least Mr. Shakespeare. Trinculo comments in the Tempest that

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.

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This is in no way an answer to the question. It does describe the person in the illustrative example given, but it describes a different aspect of that person from the one asked for. –  PLL Jan 14 at 22:38
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@PLL I agree it is surely not dead on. But I am also not impressed with the alternatives that have been suggested. While kingmaker may be closest, in US that is not an underling but a hidden force, often an annointer rather than an actual participant. –  bib Jan 14 at 22:44

If you're talking specifically about a person added because they will tip the scales, you might try ringer:

a person who is highly proficient at a particular skill or sport and is brought in to supplement a team or group of people

This is normally used to say that the person came from "outside", so it may not be a perfect fit.

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Is this more BrE or AmE? I am a native speaker of AmE and I have never heard ringer used this way. –  Soylent Green Jan 14 at 20:08
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American. It's most often used in sports, and often in a dishonest/cheating manner. For instance, a local amateur softball team who enlists someone that used to play semi-pro ball has "brought in a ringer". Also, for a horrible movie, see The Ringer. –  Geobits Jan 14 at 20:14
    
@Geobits I thought The Ringer was cute. Albeit a little disrespectful. –  Cruncher Jan 14 at 21:43
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I’ve heard ringer used similarly in amateur orchestras/bands, when outside players (not regular members) are brought in for a concert to strengthen a small or weak section. –  PLL Jan 14 at 22:43
    
Ringer is also used in "BrE", in exactly the same context as described by Geobits –  cowls Jan 15 at 13:08

Using a political term it would be "swing voter". The swing voter doesn't have inherent power other than to tip the balance between the other, more significant, forces.

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This (or "tie-breaker") is the correct answer since OP is looking for someone that does not have any power (i.e. not "power-broker" or "king-maker") except his/her serendipity of being the one that tips the scale. –  Heisenberg Jan 14 at 22:25
    
Agree with Anh's reasoning. "Swing vote" is also what I would have answered to this question before I read the responses. –  Jonathan Van Matre Jan 14 at 22:30
    
@Anh I'm not so sure. OP says, "this fellow is talent," and calls him a "powerful underling". It's not serendipity that the scales tip when he's added to the team, it's because he was added that the scales tip. –  Geobits Jan 14 at 22:46
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Generally in politics, a "swing voter" is one who one wouldn't expect to vote out of party loyalty or ideological commitment to particular candidates, but who is open to persuasion. While swing voters are particularly important cases of people who could tip the balance (because they are more likely to), they neither always do so (in a "safe" seat, "safe" house, etc.) nor are the only people who do (if something leads previously loyal voters to abandon a candidate). –  Jon Hanna Jan 14 at 23:26
    
@Geobits I take your point about "powerful underling." Actually, do you understand what OP means with "this fellow is talent"? Does he mean "talented"? –  Heisenberg Jan 15 at 0:52

Kingmaker, which wikipedia currently defines as "a person or group that has great influence in a royal or political succession, without being a viable candidate."

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I suppose it could depend on how this "Underling" does it. If they achieve their success through manipulation and control of others, you could call them a puppet-master. The term often has negative associations with it in this sort of context, but maybe that's OK for you?

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Neutralizing Force

Some of the terms mentioned here only apply to the scenario after it is completed and one possible outcome has been reached, as stated. But we know the outcome is not "known" before the tipping actually takes place. The "underling" can change course for whatever internal or external reasons.

Since the initial setting is said to be tense with unseen barriers between parties, often the final outcome is less tense with all parties sharing a more similar view of the "new current" scenario. The outcome is more neutral than it previously was.

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Is there a word for this third person, the underling on Team B, whose involvement would tip the balance?

I agree that kingmaker is the best word. I would add that if the powerful underling is also vying for power, cannot win on their own merits, but can prevent a given candidate from winning, then that person is a spoiler:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/spoiler

one (as a political candidate) having little or no chance of winning but capable of depriving a rival of success

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Interesting indeed. But this is more a comment than a proper answer to the original question. –  Pierre Arlaud Jan 15 at 8:34

In voting theory, the person you described is called a dictator. It is famous in the properties of a fair voting method for Arrow's theorem

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow%27s_theorem#Statement_of_the_theorem

Non-dictatorship

The social welfare function should account for the wishes of multiple voters. It cannot simply mimic the preferences of a single voter.

This is jargon, but the technical language may be relevant.

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This underling could be referred to as an "ally", or partner for the purpose of brokering power.

But the function the underling is performing is a "catalyst".

A catalyst creates change when added to the mixture - can be good or bad.

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Also consider the term deciding vote, which is used to refer to the vote that tips a tie vote (if it occurs) one way or the other. The “powerful underling” mentioned in the question might be called the deciding vote, the decisive factor, etc. Eg,

When VP Wilson faces off with VP Jones, we expect Supervisor Smith to actually have the deciding vote.

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It really depends on the context that you mean it, I think.

To me, power-broker and kingmaker seem like the better fit if you're referring to a wire-puller who is actively acting as a annointer. (All of these emphasized words are good, I think.)

Vulgar variations of prostitute also come to mind if he's actively bending over. As does machiavel if he's ruthlessly manipulative.

For something less charged, the French-derived éminence grise is euphemism for all of the latter. The expression entered the English language in the 30s according to iPad's dictionary.

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I think such a person would be a trump card for the weaker team.

From Dictionary.com

trump card
Informal. something that gives one person or group the advantage over another:
The surprise witness was his trump card.

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I don't think that there is an existing mot-juste for this concept. With enough context, balance-tipper will be well understood as a shorter form for "person who tips the balance".

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I think the perfect term for what you describe would be:

  • Game Changer

    A newly introduced element or factor that changes an existing situation or activity in a significant way. (Source: Merriam Webster)

This term can be used to describe almost anything you want, be it a person, an event, an idea etc.

So you could say:

"Team B is attempting to form alliances with revered game changer John Doe, from the sandpaper towels department."

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You might consider the word spoiler.

Think of the scenario you've created. From the perspective of the stronger VP, the underling who tips the balance in favor of the weaker VP is a spoiler.

Think of two competing rags, both of which are going to feature an attention grabbing headline involving a starlet's recent scandal. One features a stock picture of the starlet in better days, fully clothed. The competing rag learns of this through an insider/mole and decides to feature a semi-nude picture of the same starlet. Guess who sells more rags that week? Right, the one with the skin, the spoiler.

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