‘Chunks’ is a funny word. Congress-watchers can’t stop saying it

Why chunks? Why not pieces or bits? The word has a lot going for it

Sen. Joe Manchin III may have put an end to Democrats’ plans on the "Build Back Better" bill, but the word “chunks” has started a whole new chapter. Above, an activist with Care in Action wears a "Build Back Better Bill" costume on the House steps on Nov. 16.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Joe Manchin III may have put an end to Democrats’ plans on the "Build Back Better" bill, but the word “chunks” has started a whole new chapter. Above, an activist with Care in Action wears a "Build Back Better Bill" costume on the House steps on Nov. 16. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 3, 2022 at 6:00am

Policy debates on Capitol Hill are often wonky and sometimes clunky. They can be full of spunk, or a lot of bunk, and occasionally sound drunk. But these days, they’re mostly chunky.

Over the last few weeks, “chunks” has become the go-to shorthand for describing Democrats’ plans to pass some subset of President Joe Biden’s large social spending and climate change legislative package. Short and stark, “chunks” juts out among the usual rambling Washington vernacular. Bills are usually “transformative” or “deleterious”; this one is chunky. 

Not everyone is on board. “Please, please, please Congress-watching friends: let’s all agree to use some word other than ‘chunks’ to describe the coming legislative strategy, ok?” tweeted senior fellow Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution. 

Asked about it in the Senate hallways this week, lawmakers laughed, demurred or looked confused. Their patience for the term varied. 

“I will be happy to vote on aspects of the Build Back Better [Act] that will help families lower their cost of living, get health care and have children be able to go to preschool,” said Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono. “If we need to do those in ‘chunks,’ I’m happy to do that.”

“I don’t know what the definition of a chunk is,” said Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman. “I think a chunk means different things to Republicans and Democrats. And a chunk to them might be many, many hundreds of billions of dollars, which I think most Republicans would regard as much more than a chunk.”

So, how did D.C.’s chattering classes land on chunks? It all began with Biden’s marathon press conference last month. ABC News’ Mary Bruce asked the president if he could get anything from the spending package passed before the midterm elections.

“Yes, I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law,” he said.

Later in the Q&A session, USA TODAY’s Maureen Groppe asked a follow-up. “You said that you’re confident you can pass big chunks of Build Back Better this year,” she said, eliding the redundant, and less evocative, “pieces” part of Biden’s original statement.

At a news conference the following day, a journalist asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi to weigh in. “Well, let me just say, ‘chunks’ is an interesting word,” she responded, drawing laughs.

Pelosi went on to explain that whatever passes would be done via reconciliation, meaning Democrats have just one shot to move some of their major legislative proposals without GOP support. “So, what the president calls chunks, I would hope would be a major bill going forward,” she said. “But remember this: This is a reconciliation bill. So, when people say let’s divide it up — nah. No, they don’t understand the process.”

“I’m sure that we can agree upon something significant,” she added. “Call it a chunk if you want.”

Pelosi’s presser cemented chunks into the political discourse, making it the word of choice for politicos discussing what parts might survive after Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia walked away from a larger package and dashed his fellow Democrats’ hopes.

Why chunks? Why not “pieces” or “bits?” Biden also referred to “components” at one point — why didn’t that stick?

Chunks has a lot going for it. For one, chunks does the work of two words — an adjective propping up a weaker noun, like with “sizeable portions.” If you want to convince your skeptical base that your landmark spending bill hasn’t been whittled down to itty-bitty fragments, you say you’re passing whole, heaping chunks of it.

Chunks is also shorter than most of its peers, mouthfuls like “basketful,” and “boatload.” And it’s evocative — hear it, and you’ll imagine hunks of wood or large lumps of charcoal.

When Strunk & White told would-be authors to “use definite, specific, concrete language,” and to “write with nouns and verbs,” they had a word like “chunk” in mind.

Chunks is a meaty word, still retaining the original meaning — a “short, thick piece of something” — it had when it split off from “chuck” (as in “chuck steak”) in the late 17th century. It’s the kind of word George Orwell would have preferred over “components,” “elements” or “constituent parts.”

“Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, sub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers,” Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language.”

(Of course, there’s some irony in marshalling Orwell to explain the parroting of a word that describes undefined sections of an unwritten bill subject to uncertain negotiations. In that same essay, Orwell railed against the “two qualities” that marred political writing: “The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.”)

In its adjective form, “chunky,” chunks also enjoys a warm connotation thanks to years of hard work by the Campbell Soup Company marketing department.

So, chunks might be on the tip of everyone’s tongues because it’s simply a better word than its alternatives.

Still, if the pen is mightier than the sword, it also cuts both ways: Punchy language can come back to smack the speaker. Republicans will undoubtedly draw a line from the bill’s “chunks” to the overstuffed sense of “chunky” to call whatever the Democrats propose bloated. And if Manchin once again ghosts his fellow Democrats after months of talks, the tabloids will have a full Lego set of playful puns to build their headlines with: “From ‘chunks’ to bunk,” “Chunky strategy goes funky” or “Biden blows ‘chunks.’”