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I find many unfamiliar phrases in readers' comments on the statements of political figures and articles on news sites these days. I can't tell if they are accepted usage. Comment posters could be native English speakers or non-native speakers. I cannot judge, and it is frustrating.

In The Washington Post’s “Comment of Today” (May 13), I came across the phrase, he is a proven commodity. The comment was in response to Chris Cillizza's "The most eventful week of the 2012 Republican primary race":

Put the pieces together and Ron Paul has a very good chance of winning the Republican nomination. The GOP is suffering from an enthusiasm gap with the rest of their 2012 possibilities. No one excites the base like Ron Paul. And he is a proven commodity in terms of raising funds and knowing the ropes of running for president.

I understand “a proven commodity” is a metaphor, but can a person be called a commodity? Is the expression, he is a proven commodity normal American English that I can use to describe any of my friends in conversation with my peers over a drink?

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You are correct that a person can't be ordinarily called a commodity. Only in this set phrase...I wonder what its origin is. – Uticensis May 14 '11 at 0:14
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Google shows the phrase started to be used as a description for people in the early 1990s, though almost exclusively in the realm of professional sports. It may have first been used in boxing:

As long as he is low-key, it won't bring the million-dollar bouts, even though he is a proven commodity. "I think he's there on the basis of his two wins," said Ferdie Pacheco, a boxing analyst. "He's in a position to make good money...

References to people as "proven commodities" is still quite rare, but you will find examples of it, as you did, outside of sports lingo.

It's significant that this objectifying language originated in sports jargon given the history of race relations in America and how this has intersected with professional sports.

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@Callithumpian.It’s interesting. We have an exactly the same practice in Japanese language. We have the phrase “He is a tremendous Shiromono (代物), meaning ‘He is a quite character.’ ‘Shiromono’ literally means a commodity. – Yoichi Oishi May 14 '11 at 2:16
@Yoichi: That is interesting. Is it used to describe athletes, or others as well? – Callithumpian May 14 '11 at 2:22
Shiromono (commodity or an article) is applied to anybody and anything rather with derogatory tone. We also use 'tama' meaning a ball for both male and even for female. When we say “she is a johdama (上玉-good ball),” it means ‘she is decent, high class, and very attractive.’ – Yoichi Oishi May 14 '11 at 9:40

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