As Netflix releases the much-anticipated second season of House of Cards, viewers brace themselves for some serious binge-watching. In the show, main character Frank Underwood’s job title is House Majority Whip, and in the British 1990s version of House of Cards, the corresponding character is a Chief Whip. Do these titles have anything to do with an actual whip?
Before you get consumed by hours of fictional political scandal, we’d like to direct you to Dictionary.com’s political definition of whip: “a party manager in a legislative body who secures attendance for voting and directs other members.” The House Majority Whip (or Chief Whip if you prefer the British version) must ensure that members of his party show up to vote on important matters. As an extension of this, the whip knows the happenings of his party members’ lives and how to find them (and discipline them if needed). If there are disagreements or altercations between party members, it falls on the whip to mediate the situation to help ensure the party’s political success.
This political whip first came to English in the mid-1800s, as an extension of the original sense of, “an instrument for striking,” which had been around in English since the 1300s. Whip is a shortening of whipper-in, which British speakers first used in the 1730s to refer to a huntsman’s assistant. The whipper-in’s job involved keeping dogs in order during a fox hunt with–as you might have already guessed–a whip. This term made the transition into politics about 40 years later to describe someone who essentially keeps party members in line. Within 100 years whipper-in became simply whip. This is an example of metonymy in that the person who wields the instrument of flogging becomes known as the apparatus itself.
Even though the whip portion of Frank Underwood’s title is metaphorical, he is still likely to administer some severe psychological lashings this season. Would you like to know the story behind any other words or phrases from House of Cards? If you’re curious about the expression house of cards, we explore that and other television idioms here.