“Astroturf” v. “Grass Root”


Amidst reports, debates, spectacles, town-hall meetings, discussions, and confrontations concerning health-care reform an ancillary issues, a new metaphorical use of “Astroturf” has arisen, or perhaps we should write, “has been installed.”   In this context, “Astroturf” apparently refers to artificial “grass-root” movements, so that what looks like spontaneous involvement by and outrage from citizens is really calculated–orchestrated by professionals, paid for by not-so-shadowy organizations.

The speed and volume of media help to make the accepted usage of such a term seem almost instantaneous. One day, it appears, “Astroturf” (since 1966) refers more or less to artificial grass; the next day almost everyone is using it or is understanding it to be used as referring to artificial outrage or protests.  The linguistic, semantic change occurs with the speed of a magician’s sleight-of-hand: fascinating.

Information: The term “grass root” (two words, not one word, according to the OED online) as applied to politics seems to be a product of the early twentieth century, at least in print (scroll down a bit for further details).

Observation, by way of a question: At what point does a “grass-root[s]” political movement become well organized, thus less-than-spontaneous, and thus, arguably, “Astroturf[ed”?

As you ponder this question (if indeed you want to do so), we shall post below the pertinent sections of the OED online in reference to “Astroturf” (as artificial grass) and “grass root” (in political usage).

If, on the other hand, you are simply interested in replacing a thirsty lawn composed of real grass with artificial grass, we hereby provide the following link, but without recommendation or endorsement:


[OED entry for Astroturf]

A proprietary name for a kind of artificial grass surface (first used in the Astrodome indoor sports stadium at Houston, Texas).

1966 Daily Tel. 21 Apr. 16/6 Houston had spent £11 million building its mammoth, air-conditioned Astrodome… Now..[they are] spending £180,000 on a carpet of synthetic turf, called..Astroturf. 1968 Official Gaz. (U.S. Patent Office) 3 Dec. TM6/2 Astroturf. For plastic materials in the form of fibers, filaments, ribbon-like extrusions. 1968 Trade Marks Jrnl. 11 Dec. 2164/2 Astroturf… Ropes, string, nets and sacks..tents, awnings (textile), tarpaulins, sails, padding and stuffing materials..and raw fibrous textile materials. Monsanto Company. 1975 FELTON & FOWLER Best, Worst, & Most Unusual 280 Campsites..carpeted with astroturf. 1975 Telegraph (Brisbane) 2 Oct. 22/5 Near the pool is a putting green of astro-turf. 1977 New Yorker 12 Sept. 59/1 He and Henny..sat down in a couple of lawn chairs on a green Astroturf lawn. 1986 Washington Post 25 Jan. C5/3 He couldn’t wait to test the Bourbon Street Theory on the Superdrome astroturf.

Hence {sm}astroturfed a., carpeted with Astroturf.

1984 Times 9 Oct. 13/1 They were speaking on the astro-turfed roof terrace of Lloyd Webber’s Soho offices.
[OED entry for “grass root” in a political context]

b. Politics. Used spec. to describe the rank-and-file of the electorate or of a political party. Also attrib. orig. U.S.

1912 McClure’s Mag. July 324/1 From the Roosevelt standpoint, especially, it was a campaign from the ‘grass roots up’. The voter was the thing. 1935 Nation 19 June 697/2 ‘No crisis so grave has confronted our people’ since the Civil War, Mr. Lowden told the grassroots convention at Springfield. 1948 Times Lit. Suppl. 13 Mar. 143/4 The self-governing congregation is a unique element in English ‘grass-root’ democracy. 1955 Times 12 Aug. 9/6 These are the complaints at grass-root level; in more sophisticated circles the N.L.M. politicians talk of disregard of minority rights and incipient dictatorship. 1959 Listener 30 April 746/2 The rather narrow oligarchic regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem [in South Viet-Nam]..seems to be losing contact with the ‘grass roots’. 1966 New Statesman 25 Mar. 410/1 The grassroot Tory still prefers to touch his forelock and reverence his ‘betters’.

One Response to ““Astroturf” v. “Grass Root””

  1. Astroturf Rhetoric « Politics and Language Says:

    […] May 15, 2010 — O. Many posts ago, the blog discussed the political terms “Astroturf” and […]

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