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New York Times (March 6) reports Mr. Trump’s claims of the former President Obama’s giving an order for wiretapping at Trump Tower, with no evidence, under the headline, “Trump’s wiretapping claims puncture veneer of Presidential civility.”

A tire punctures, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the phrase, “puncture veneer.” I tried to find out the exact definition of the phrase online to no avail.

What does “puncture veneer” mean? Is this a popular turn of phrase?

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    For additional reference, the concept of "presidential civility" was that in prior centuries, presidents and ex-presidents would not speak ill of each other, and ex-presidents would not critique the sitting president's actions. – Hellion Mar 7 '17 at 15:40
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    I have never heard exactly this usage but I have heard expressions like: "strip off the veneer of..." or "see beneath the veneer of..." You are quite correct in saying that puncture would be more appropriate to a tire. – Hugh Meyers Mar 7 '17 at 15:45
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    Headlines are often so terse that they mangle the meaning, and editors tend to remove "to"; "the"; "and"; make things singular instead of plural; etc to make it as short as possible to fit in large type. This is an example. (see also "Crash Blossoms" languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=118 ) – Yorik Mar 7 '17 at 17:48
  • It is logically potentially a mixed metaphor, but I have definitely heard it, though usually in the form 'puncture his/the veneer of...' I think the metaphor applies to modern plastic veneers that are basically contact paper on particle board, rather than normal traditional veneers on genuine wood. If you get one hole in them, they slowly peel off over time.. – jobermark Mar 7 '17 at 18:16
  • "What does “puncture veneer” mean?" Exactly what you'd think it meant if you looked up the words "puncture" and "veneer" in a dictionary. – David Richerby Mar 8 '17 at 13:30
37

It's headlinese, once you add all the articles and prepositions that would be in the normal version of that sentence you get: "The wiretapping claims that Trump made have punctured his veneer of Presidential civility".

In its literal definition "veneer" is:

A thin decorative covering of fine material (usually wood) applied to coarser wood or other material.

(M-W)

But it is often used in the metaphorical sense of:

An attractive appearance that covers or disguises true nature or feelings.

(Wiktionary)

And in that sense you will often see phrases like "puncture the veneer of XXX" or "see through the veneer of XXX" (though as Mari-Lou A points out, "puncture the veneer" itself seems to be a choice by the writer, not a common instance of that kind of phrase), which means seeing through that superficial appearance to the true nature underneath (or in this case, the true nature underneath being revealed as the "veneer" gets "punctured").

"puncture veneer" on its own isn't a phrase that exists (and googling it will mostly get you links to the articles you found anyway).

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    That’s true. Most of all google references converged to the New York Times’ article I quoted. The rest, to simply “veneer.” – Yoichi Oishi Mar 7 '17 at 10:12
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    Good answer. Though I disagree on one small point. The phrase refers not to his veneer, but the traditional "veneer of civility" between all presidents. – Leigh Mar 7 '17 at 21:21
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No, 'puncture veneer' is not an idiom. Here 'puncture' is used as a verb and the meaning of 'veneer' is 'facade'. Thus the meaning of the entire headline, by assuming its literal meaning, is Trump's claims about wiretapping punctures the superficial presidential civility.

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Rozenn Keribin's answer is good, and explains well the New York Time's headline, so it deserves the upvotes, but it is was wrong over one thing. You do not normally puncture a veneer, this imagery was created by the author of the article. The precise idiom is

strip away the veneer of somebody or something

To remove some covering or layer: Most bullies are really cowards once you strip away their tough facade.

A number of journalists are now accusing the President of the States of deflecting attention away from the investigation of Russian interference in the US pre-election. By openly accusing his predecessor of spying, in tweets, Trump has undermined the most highly regarded and renowned office in the US. However, by using the verb “puncture”, the author is probably suggesting that the damage is not irreparable, and on surface (i.e. the “veneer” = the illusion) the presidential civility is still intact.


EDIT
In order to be absolutely clear about this, the most common collocations with veneer are the following, courtesy of Online OXFORD Collocation Dictionary. Emphasis in bold mine.

ADJ. thin | false | civilized
VERB + VENEER acquire | strip (off), strip sb/sth of

  • They have stripped the veneer of jingoism from the play, by showing war in its true horror.

VENEER + VERB disguise sth, hide sth, mask sth

  • He managed to acquire a thin veneer of knowledge to mask his real ignorance.

| crack
- For the first time her veneer of politeness began to crack.

PREP. behind/below/beneath/under a/the ~

  • They're brutal people behind their civilized veneer. | ~ of

Neither the verb ‘puncture’ nor the adjective ‘punctured’ is listed anywhere.

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    Not sure your interpretation of puncture is correct here. It does, anyway, convey the idea that the surface has been broken, but to which extent is a matter of personal opinion. – user66974 Mar 7 '17 at 10:05
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    I agree, but to me the "hole" that the punture suggests sounds like a "damage", possibly permanent , to the supposed respectability of Presidency. Pob anyway. – user66974 Mar 7 '17 at 10:13
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    There's a hole in my bucket list. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 7 '17 at 11:11
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    In line with the original, I was conflating two concepts &/or metaphors. Dear Liza. My attempt at humour. It seems to have pailed into insignificance. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 7 '17 at 11:32
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    No, not your fault at all. Sometimes I am quite dim. But I did chuckle at the "pailed into insignificance" that's very clever. Thank you for the morning giggle.:) – Mari-Lou A Mar 7 '17 at 11:35
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The reason for the use of "veneer" is covered by other answers (a superficial coating applied to something for appearances, used here metaphorically), but I'd like to add a possible perspective on the headline writer's choice of "puncture".

There is a legal phrase "piercing the corporate veil", which is in widespread enough use in corporate/financial/legal areas that I do not doubt the headline writer is aware of it. (This is the New York Times, after all.) "Piercing the corporate veil" refers to a process by which the distinction between the corporation and the people running or owning it is blurred.

Under normal operation there is an official legal separation between the corporation, as an independent legal entity, and the private individuals who own and run it. But part of maintaining this "corporate veil" is that CEOs and company owners have to maintain that distinction between corporate property and actions and personal property or actions. If they don't - if they act through the company for their own personal ends (and explicitly counter to the benefit of the company) - courts can "pierce the corporate veil" and hold them personally responsible for corporate actions and debts.

I have no proof of this, but one possibility is that the headline writer for the New York Times was attempting to bring in this phrase as a metaphor by the choice of the word "puncture". (It's certainly where my mind went to first.) Like the corporate veil, the office of the President has something of an unofficial separation between the position of the President and the person who happens to be the President. For example, with Presidential civility, while the person holding the office might have rather scathing personal opinions about past Presidents, the precedent is not to use the office of the President as a platform to broadcast those personal opinion.

That is what I'm thinking may be behind the choice of "puncture" - the headline writer may be attempting to imply that Trump's actions blur the distinction between his personal opinions and positions/behaviors held by the office of the President, by using a metaphor that only makes sense if you're up-to-speed on financial legal terminology. (As I said, this is the New York Times.)

Mixed metaphors are very headlinese, so "puncture veneer" is a short way to smash together a bunch of relevant concepts.


P.S. Why "puncture" rather than "pierce"? I'd say "pierce" has a more deliberate connotation to it. "Piercing the corporate veil" is an action taken by the courts to remove the distinction between corporation and private person. On the other hand "puncture" conveys more of an accidental nature. Trumps actions weren't intended to remove the distinction between the office of President and the person holding it, but may have done so anyway.

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"Puncture veneer" is not itself an idiom, but to "puncture the veneer" is a relatively common phrase. The confusion is likely because the headline is eliding the determiner the as in:

Trump’s wiretapping claims puncture [the] veneer of Presidential civility.

A veneer is a surface coating, like shellac. When used as a synonym for facade, it also means "an attractive appearance that covers or disguises someone or something's true nature or feelings." So, to puncture the veneer of something is to go behind the appearance or shatter the illusion.

In context, the truncated phrase claims that Trump's presidential civility is just a thin coating or an illusion, under which some attribute other than civility is present.

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