In politics, the term “sharp-elbowed” refers to being aggressive and assertive when it comes to pursuing a legislative agenda or pushing one’s point of view.
The phrase is traditionally intended to describe a positive attribute in a politician, suggesting that having “sharp elbows” is the opposite of being a legislative pushover or being too quick to compromise. In 1984, renowned linguist William Safire noted in the New York Times: “a change of connotation is taking place in the political use of the word. Not long ago, to have sharp elbows was not considered a compliment, as was apparent in the calumniation of Mr. Strauss. Today, a politician without elbows is as lost as a politician without principles. The display of elbows is evidence of necessary macho.”
In the same article, Safire noted an early use of the metaphor: ‘”’No man lives without jostling and being jostled,’’ wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1838. ‘’In all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.’”
As described by famed political operative James Carville: “You have to have sharp elbows if you want to change something.”
While the term is most often use to refer to legislators or politicians running for office, it can be used to describe an event as well, as when the Los Angeles Times called the 2015 GOP debate “sharp-elbowed.”
In 2010, an ABA Journal article reported on a trove of 11,000 emails about Supreme Court justice Elana Kagan, which revealed her to be a “sharp-elbowed and sometimes salty-tongued lawyer.”
And in 2015, the Economist used the term to refer to the wealthy in Britain, saying: “With their sharp elbows, the argument goes, the wealthy jostle others out of the way in the queue for doctors’ appointments, school places and other scarce public services.”
More recently, some have started to decry the sharp-elbowed nature of politics. From a 2020 article in the Wall Street Journal: “…in today’s highly polarized political environment, replete with the sharp-elbowed tactics of Washington infighting, much of [Martin Luther] King’s work has apparently been forgotten.”