Why Is Merriam-Webster Explaining the Phrase “Key Bump” to Us?

Republican Rep Madison Cawthorn accused prominent DC lawmakers of doing a "key bump" of cocaine, and gave the internet a vocabulary lesson in the process

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., is seen in the Capitol Visitor Center after Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., won the election for House Republican Conference chair on Friday, May 14, 2021.
Madison Cawthorn, a person who may or may not know what a key bump means.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Yesterday afternoon I, like many internet dwellers, was informed by the Merriam-Webster Twitter account that “People are talking about ‘key bumps.’”

“Now, why might that be?” I, a person who knows what a key bump is, asked myself upon learning this information. As it turns out, the reason people were talking about key bumps is that many of them were, until very recently, unfamiliar with the term (which, for the uninitiated, is used to refer to a bump of cocaine taken off a key). Not Republican Representative Madison Cawthorn, though; he knew exactly what key bumps were, knowledge he all too willfully demonstrated during a recent podcast appearance.

Asked how real-life DC compares to the Netflix series House of Cards, Cawthorn regaled the “Warrior Poet Society” podcast host with tales of drugs and debauchery on Capitol Hill, claiming he was invited to an “orgy” by unnamed Washington elites and even observed prominent political figures known for promoting anti-drug platforms doing “a key bump of cocaine.”

Naturally, the 26-year-old congressmen’s loud-mouthed comments pissed off his fellow lawmakers, while both confusing and amusing the public, who fixated primarily on Cawthorn’s word choice — specifically the term “key bump.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “You may, if you choose, refer to ‘small amounts of drugs sniffed off a key’ as ‘key bumps,’” though the dictionary does not “enter ‘key bump’ as a fixed phrase, as it has not yet demonstrated wide currency of use.”

We might say then that “key bump” is a bit of rather esoteric jargon — specifically the jargon of those who have done a lot of cocaine and thus don’t really have any right to be scandalized by other people doing cocaine. In other words, as many on Twitter were quick to point out, someone who so readily uses the term “key bump” in casual conversation is probably someone who has done their share of key bumps.

Others, however, argued that no one who is actually cool enough to do cocaine would refer to it as a “key bump,” a term Rolling Stone’s E.J. Dickson compared to calling a joint a “marijuana joint.”

Either way, Cawthorn embarrassed himself and others, and a bunch of us got to learn a new phrase that people may or may not actually use. Anyway, congrats to Cawthorn and his fellow congressmen. Seems like everybody’s having fun up there.

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