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Mark Helperin’s column titled ‘Snapshot’ in Time magazine (August 15) begins with the following sentence:

“Here are the two data points most compelling to me:

(1) Many Democratic sharpies now think if unemployment doesn’t go above 9%, Romney is done and dusted.

(2) Speaker Boehner is reportedly having to calm the conference over the selection of one of its own to join the national ticket."

From the context, I suppose ‘sharpies’ here means ‘hard-liners, hawks, or persons fervent in their principles’ But I don’t find such meanings in any popular dictionaries:

Cambridge online dictionary has no entry of this word.

Oxford online dictionary defines ‘sharpie’ as

  1. A sharp-plowed, flat-bottomed New England sailing boat, with one or two masts each rigged with a triangular sail.

  2. (informal, chiefly North American) another term for sharper.

Merriam-Webster simply defines it as a long narrow shallow-draft boat, with flat bottom, plus ‘sharper’ as an ‘exceptionally keen or alert person’ which seems to me pretty close to my interpretation of ‘political sharpies.’

Wikipedia defines ‘sharpie’ only as an American manufacturer of writing instruments whose products are sold in over 20 countries. Originally a name designating a single permanent marker.

In net, none of dictionaries I’ve checked registers ‘sharpie’ in political connotation.

Is ‘sharpie’ a received English word? What does it exactly mean?

4 Answers 4

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Given the context, I'm assuming that it's referring to a sharp person. I think the word pundit could be a workable substitution.

Incidentally, when I was looking around in various dictionaries, I found this is NOAD:

enter image description here

I thought that was worth a mention, because you said:

none of dictionaries I’ve checked registers ‘sharpie’ in political connotation.

(Several people I know would find a direct link between a "dishonest and cunning person" and politics). That said, I don't think the Time reporter is making that inference; I think Helperin is referring to political strategists – not necessarily hard-liners – as "sharpies."

As for your second-to-last question (“Is ‘sharpie’ a received English word?”), I think it is indeed acceptable; the Time article would attest to that. That said, it's not commonly used in that context, and most in the USA would probably think of permanent markers before they associated the word with keenly intelligent wonks.

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  • 1
    This sense of "sharpie" could be derived from card sharp. Aug 16, 2012 at 5:19
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    I think Helperin erred here. "Sharpie" has a strong negative connotation, which he did not intend. He simply meant people with sharp intellects. Aug 16, 2012 at 9:19
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It has no political connotation that I'm aware of. In your example, it's simply being used in its sense of "exceptionally keen or alert person" as you noted.

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  • Does it pass or understood when I call my friend who is English language enthusiast ‘English sharpie’?. Aug 15, 2012 at 23:51
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    @YoichiOishi You might try "English-language sharpie", otherwise you could be calling your friend a sharpie from England. Aug 16, 2012 at 0:01
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    or a sharpie made in U.K. Aug 16, 2012 at 1:00
  • @YoichiOishi I wouldn't understand that, no--even Mark's suggested change would confuse me. A sharpie is the permanent marker as you mentioned, or if that doesn't make sense in context then maybe something actually physically sharp... This seems very strange to me, and really isn't a word that I'd use in any context like this.
    – WendiKidd
    Aug 16, 2012 at 2:12
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This may be a reference to political strategists meeting in backrooms (in earlier eras, smoked-filled rooms), plotting their campaign moves, tallying potential votes and jotting down bullet points, all this brainstorming being scribbled out on chart paper with marking pens, e.i. sharpies. The pens stand for their wielders, metonymy wins again.

Just a guess.

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In science a sharpie is a permanent marker, named after the most common brand.

enter image description here

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  • Howso “in science”?
    – tchrist
    Aug 16, 2012 at 1:56
  • Yes, the questioner mentioned those. Why science in particular? Aug 16, 2012 at 1:56
  • @MarkBeadles - they get a lot of use in labs - I've never heard them called anything but a sharpie (cf Biro) while in the real world people say 'marker'
    – mgb
    Aug 16, 2012 at 2:19
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    If Mark Helperin was referring to the ubiquitous permanent marker in his article he should have capitalized the brand name “Sharpie”; ..as in a bunch of consultants in a room pontificating on “3M Post-It” Easels Pads what the outcome of the presidential race would be. That was my first thought – but it wasn’t capitalized – so I suspect he was shooting for something else.
    – ipso
    Aug 16, 2012 at 6:14

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