Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Episode 240: Reach Across the Aisle


This week Shauna and Dan explore the phrase, Reach Across the Aisle. Dan says it might be the most boring origin story they've ever done - seating charts. There's also a similar phrase in the United Kingdom. Bonus: Taylor Swift, Rock Churches, and one guy who watched 1,413 hours of the US House of Representatives meetings. Oof. 

 Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 240: Reach Across the Aisle
Record Date: June 23, 2024
Air Date: June 26, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever been part of a conversation about something happening in your town, or in a group you are part of, and someone has to compromise in some way to get to an outcome that is good for most people, though maybe not everything you wanted? In the United States, we might say you were reaching across the aisle.


Shauna, and ideas where this came from?

Here’s what the Collins Dictionary has for Reach Across the Aisle.

This term is widely used in the political arena whereby members of both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives unite in a bi-partisan fashion in a mutually agree compromise on a piece of legislation or other related matters
End Quote

The term has taken on a broader idiomatic meaning as well, as pointed out by the Farlex Dictionary of Idioms,

To make an effort to work cooperatively with people of different beliefs or ideologies.
End Quote

Reach across the aisle seems to have originated from the Chamber Seating of the United States Senate. Here is a riveting piece from about the seating plan for the US Senate.

Today, Democrats sit to the presiding officer's right and Republicans to the left in the Senate Chamber, but this division has not always been so clearly defined.

It is difficult to consistently document Chamber seating prior to the 1840s. Consequently, it is unclear just when the tradition of party-segregated seating began. In the 1820s and early 1830s, as parties evolved and party affiliation remained fluid, senators might have been divided among three or four different parties in the Chamber. One report from 1832 indicated that senators sat in groups based on region and their position on protective tariffs, with northern pro-tariff members seated on the left and southern anti-tariff members seated on the right. When the Democratic and Whig Parties became more entrenched in the late 1830s, members began to seat themselves by party. Since desks were evenly divided on either side of the aisle in the Old Senate Chamber (1810–1859), however, some members of the majority party took seats with minority party members on the other side of the center aisle.

In the 1850s, as the Whig Party faltered, parties were once again in flux, as was seating in the Chamber. When the Senate moved to its current Chamber in 1859, the equal distribution of desks continued, but as the division between Democratic and Republican Parties solidified during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, changes came to Chamber seating. By the 1880s, the Senate had begun the practice of moving desks back and forth across the center aisle to reflect party division and permit majority party members to sit together on the appropriate side, except in a few cases when an unusually large majority existed. In such cases, some majority party senators were forced to occupy seats across the center aisle.
End Quote

We don’t know when this phrase was first used in politics, but from the Senate perspective it probably isn’t older than the late 1830s.

This is out of the Federal Union out of Milledgeville, Georgia dated May 9, 1843

I have chosen to cite the opinions of well known Federalists, because their testimony in relation to the rights of the States has the double weight of being the testimony of opponents of State Rights, and moreover as there seems just now a considerable affinity between the gentlemen across the aisle and Federalism.
End Quote

Here’s another example, though in this one the ‘aisle’ was being used still as a boundary, though as one that should not be crossed.

New York Daily Herald, April 6, 1860.

Mr. Chairman, there is a rule of the House which requires members to speak from their seats. The gentleman from Illinois was not in his seat when he commenced speaking. The gentleman from Illinois cannot and shall not cross this aisle in a menacing manner to threaten our side of the House
End Quote

The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram out of Richmond Indiana

And it is a bipartisan control. Whenever there is a legislative question before the Senate which is not purely political in its nature - for instance, a tariff schedule - it is possible for privilege to combine its Senators of both parties. Whenever Senator Aldrich found himself in a tight place he could reach across the aisle and secure sufficient Democratic support to sustain him.
End Quote

The Pittsburgh Press, March 4, 1923 with the headline “Many Notable Figures Go From Political Spotlight as 67th Congress Closes” by Fraser Edwards

To the younger men with the road of life stretching before them, the parting is not so hard. To the old stagers it is farewell to all their glory, good-bye to steadfast friends. Tremulous old hands reach across the aisles that divides the political parties. Friendship knows no party lines and bitter political foes are parting with tears.
End Quote

This next one is out of the Memphis Press-Scimitar dated February 12, 1946. In it, Representative John Rankin, a democrat from Mississippi, took issue with the Soviet Premier Josef Stalin and a radio commentator, Walter Winchell.

“If Lincoln were alive today Winchell couldn’t get in his back door let alone his front door”, Rankin declared.

Waving his arms and growing red in the face, the gray-haired Southerner said if Lincoln were on the Republican side of the House he would “reach across the aisle to join hands with us who are trying to save America from destruction at the hands of the Communists and their fellow-travelers.”  
End Quote

There is a similar phrase in the United Kingdom, and it is likely an earlier version of the US phrase.

Crossing the Floor (UK)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, crossing the floor means:

Politics. to cross the floor: (esp. in a parliamentary system) to vote against one's own party, or leave one's party to join another; (in extended use) to change sides on an issue, to reverse one's opinion or position.
End Quote

They go on to note this is from the practice whereby, in a chamber where government and opposition parties sit opposite and facing each other, members of parliament literally cross the floor to sit on the other side, either to join another party or (in some countries) to vote against their own.

Here’s an example from 1822 from the UKs Parliamentary Debates 2nd Series vol. 6.

By the single circumstance of his having crossed the floor, with his friends, the country has still to pay 1,500,000l. a year, the amount of the salt tax. But a very little while ago, the doctor was the champion for the repeal of the salt tax.
End Quote

With that, let’s move to our uses in modern media, but first we need to say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

As we jump into our modern uses, I’ll note some of the examples use the phrase in reference to politics while others reference other forms of opposing opinions. Both are quite popular in recent times.

4 Tips for Reaching Across the Aisle by Carol Kinsey Goman, published in Forbes. It starts:

After every election, politicians say the same thing: "Now we have to reach across the aisle to work together for good of the American people."

And I hear similar proclamations (of working together for the good of all) from my corporate clients who are looking to break down the "silo mentality" of their companies.

Sounds simple. But we know it isn't.
End Quote

We’ll be talking about those 4 steps in the behind the scenes, which airs every Friday on

2013 Article
For Boehner, It's Getting Tough to Reach Across the Aisle
By Susan Milligan Jan. 17, 2013

Little more than a decade ago, John Boehner was hanging out with Sen. Ted Kennedy. The conservative Ohio congressman was among the central group of bipartisan, bicameral lawmakers who hammered out the No Child Left Behind education overhaul. And Boehner didn't stop there. He and Massachusetts liberal Kennedy would hold joint dinners every year to raise money for Washington, D.C., Catholic schools.

That cross-party work once was appreciated for its value in developing the negotiating skills and patience required by someone in the job Boehner now holds, speaker of the House. But such relationships are now seen as unholy alliances by a segment of Boehner's Republican caucus, and the tension is likely to continue as Boehner begins his second Congress as speaker.
End Quote

Boehner would eventually step down in October 2015 due to the pressure from conservatives who felt he was working too much with Democrats to get things done in Congress.

2016 Article
Why politicians won’t reach across the aisle
Jan 11, 2016

Bad feelings about each other rather than competing ideologies keep Republicans and Democrats from encouraging their representatives to compromise and get things done, say the authors of a new book about why Washington won’t work.
End Quote

The book in question is the 2015 work
Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis by Marc J. Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudolph

2019 Article
Massive collection of C-SPAN footage shows Congress members literally cross the aisle less than they used to
by Clark Merrefield December 4, 2019

Author Bryce Dietrich, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa, analyzed the biggest video collection of the U.S. House of Representatives ever used in political science research — 1,413 hours, about two months’ worth of video, covering January 1997 to December 2012. The clips are overhead shots from cable network C-SPAN showing representatives’ movements about the chamber.

Dietrich found representatives have physically crossed the aisle less and less to interact with opposing colleagues over time since the late 1990s. The ideological rift in Congress began in the 1970s and mirrors a broader partisan split in America over recent decades, according to the Pew Research Center.
End Quote

2021 Blog
The Storytelling Genius of Taylor Swift’s “evermore” by Turi Sionon February 3, 2021 Blog Uniquely Aligned

With the 2006 country debut of “Tim McGraw,” if the world didn’t know that Taylor Swift was a lyrical genius, they soon would recognize the fact. Swift’s early songs encapsulate the universal teen experience: fantasizing about love, daydreaming about taking revenge upon those who have wronged you; pondering what it would have felt like to fit in with your peers, how life could have been different had others only let you in. With songs like “You Belong With Me,” “Better Than Revenge,” and the infamous “All Too Well,” you get lost in the lyrics just as much as the music, making for an emotional internal performance just as strong as the external one heard through Swift’s words.

In this way, there’s no doubting that Taylor Swift is a powerful storyteller. For years, she has taken her daydreams, first-hand experiences, and hopes for the future and turned them into songs with strong personal narratives that reach across the aisle to connect with her audience.
End Quote

2022 Lesson Series

Talking across the aisle by By Rachel Reed

Courses led by Harvard Law’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program teach students how to lead critical conversations about polarizing issues
Apr 05, 2022

In an interview with Harvard Law Today, the trio explain why constructive dialogue has declined in recent decades, how to reverse the trend, and why it’s critical for lawyers — and everyone else — to learn how to have discussions about the issues facing our nation.
End Quote

Wrap Up
As you can see, the phrase is still used pretty heavily in politics. But we do see many examples where it is continuing to have a broader usage base. And I like the concept of working together through ideological differences. I honestly think it’s the only way a society can thrive - when we work together and reach across the aisle to make things better for the whole, even if it isn’t everything we wanted at the time.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

This one looks at an article by CNN Travel and the top travel destinations in 2024. And in honor of that, we asked our Patrons, If you won an all expenses paid trip to one of the top 5 destinations, which one would you pick?

The top 5 from the article were
Sumba, Indonesia
Turkey’s Black Sea coast
Tartu, Estonia
Tainan, Taiwan
Northwest Michigan

Turkey’s Black Sea Coast takes first place, followed by Tainan, Taiwan, and Tartu, Estonia.
Heather said:
I've wanted to go to Taiwan for a while, though practically I think it would be to busy and crowded for me. Thats a reservation I have with a lot of my travel wishes. But since for the time being I can only travel in my mind anyway, I'm building a long bucket list!
End Quote

Of the 5 options, Estonia is one that has long been on my list to visit. But the unrest in Russia has meant this border country keeps getting pushed back. So my vote goes to visiting the Rock Churches along Turkey's Black Sea coast, which I think would be awesome to see.

Honorable mention to another one from the article but wasn't in the top 5, Panama City. I really want to see the historic district - known as Casco Viejo. I also want to get to Merida, Mexico and to a few cities in Chile.

I always wanted to visit the Tartu Observatory because of the location of the geodetic arch that is marked there. It indicates a meridian section that was used in the 1800s and I think that’s just a really cool look at science from that time frame.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. And patrons of all levels, including our free tiers, can take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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