BOISE, Idaho – Among the most famous excuses ever given for questionable behavior, "I have a wide stance" must fall somewhere between the schoolchild's favorite "the dog ate my homework" and President Clinton's "I didn't inhale."
But Sen. Larry Craig's contention — made just after his arrest in a restroom sex sting — has permeated the public consciousness, showing up as more than just the punch line to late-night talk show jokes.
The online Urban Dictionary defines "wide stance" as a euphemism for a closeted homosexual. David Kurtz of the blog "Talking Points Memo" called Craig's wide stance claim "The Best Legal Defense of 2007." And Beau Jarvis, who writes about wine, travel and food on the blog "Basic Juice," notes that the phrase has become less than innocent and proposes "cleansing" it by using it to describe a well-balanced wine.
Craig uttered the now-famous phrase after an undercover police officer at the Minneapolis airport arrested him on June 11, according to police reports.
Sgt. Dave Karsnia claimed Craig entered a neighboring stall after peering at him through a crack in the door, then slid his foot underneath the stall divider, tapping it several times before moving it so it touched the officer's foot. Then, Karsnia said, Craig waved his hand underneath the divider. Karsnia said he recognized the gestures as a coded invitation for gay sex.
During questioning, the senator said he simply has a wide stance when using the restroom and that the officer must have seen him reaching to pick up a piece of paper on the floor, according to the police report.
Craig pleaded guilty in August to disorderly conduct, then unsuccessfully tried to withdraw his plea after the incident became public. Though he initially said he intended to resign, Craig vowed last week to serve out the last 15 months of his term.
Will "wide stance" last as long in popular usage?
"You search the blogosphere or even newspapers and you'll find a lot of references to it," said Grant Barrett, co-host of the nationwide public radio show "A Way With Words" and author of several slang dictionaries. "People are toying with the words, seeing how it feels on the keyboard."
Craig's office declined to comment.
The question to any new slang is whether it will last five or 10 years, Barrett said.
"How can we not mention Watergate and the -gate suffix? That's the single most successful new political word ever," Barrett said. "Over time, the use makes the original meaning become diminished — even curse words, with use, their value diminishes and they become ordinary."
So far, about six weeks after the scandal broke, the slang shows no sign of slowing down. The Oct. 8 edition of The New Yorker magazine featured an illustration by Barry Blitt called "Narrow Stance," showing Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sitting in a men's room, looking down at another man's foot thrust underneath the stall divider.
In an Oct. 6 "Saturday Night Live" skit, comedian Amy Poehler remarked, "You do have a wide stance," as the punch line of a series of jokes about Craig. Late-night talk show hosts Jay Leno, David Letterman and others have also lampooned the senator's stance.
Still, another new slang term seems to be outpacing "wide stance" in the national lexicon, Barrett said. Unfortunately for Craig, it also stems from his scandal.
"Are you tracking the term `toe-tapper?' That's gotten more traction than `wide stance' so far," Barrett said. "They both have too much cachet. They're political, social, new, slangy and a little naughty."
Both phrases will likely make Barrett's short list of nominations for the most significant new word of 2007, as voted on by the American Dialect Society, he said.
"It's a whimsical vote that we do each year," said Barrett, who is a vice president for the society.
So what makes a new phrase last? It has to be useful, Barrett said, and it has to be able to stand alone, without a reference to its origin.
"There's a lot of political slang that hasn't lasted," he said. "The test will be when the story's old hat and then we'll know for sure."