March 18, 2013 1:13:01 PM
Whatever you think of our system of government and the presidents who have been in charge of it, there is one aspect of being president that you may never have appreciated: neologisms. People are more likely to pay attention to the words of presidents than to those of others, and when the president comes up with a new word, it quite possibly will stick. These coinages are the subject of Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents (Walker) by Paul Dickson. The author is an essayist and lexicographer who presents this entertaining look at how presidents have used and shaped our language. The book isn't entirely about presidents; vice presidents get in on the neologism act, too. And it isn't entirely about new words; often a president's use of a neglected word polishes it up to look like new. Dickson also includes a surprising list of other firsts for presidents; you knew that Nixon was the first president to resign, but did you know that Grant was the first president to see the Pacific Ocean?
It isn't surprising that the brainiest of all our presidents should be well represented on these pages; Jefferson gets credit for more than a hundred additions to the language. It is lovely that one of his words is "neologize" itself. Jefferson liked tinkering and inventing, and did so with his vocabulary. He first used "neologize" (quite properly from the Greek for "new" and "word") in a letter to a grammarian in 1813. "Necessity obliges us to neologize," he wrote. And then he continued in his revolutionary way, hoping that neologisms would separate the American version of English "in name as well as in power, from the mother tongue." In a letter to John Adams in 1820, he wrote, "I am a great friend to neology. It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony." Did you think that Austin Powers was the first to use the word "shag" (which Dickson calls a "copulatory verb")? No; Jefferson did, in 1770, and the quotation given here gives a context that preserves its vulgarity. Jefferson also gets credit for the more refined and indispensable "lengthily," "belittle," "electioneering," and "indecipherable."
George Washington had a reputation for taciturnity, or at least for speaking only when he had something worth saying, so it isn't surprising that he figures in these pages less than Jefferson. He did not coin the term "New Yorker," but in a letter in 1856 he referred to "the Jerseys and New Yorkers," showing that he was among the first to use it. He was the first to use the adjective "indoors," writing in 1899, "There are many sorts of in-doors work, which can be executed in Hail, Rain, or Snow, as well as in sunshine." He was the first to use "administration" to refer to a presidential term of office, as in "In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error." John Adams gave us "caucus," as in a private meeting of politicians in an interest group. James Madison in 1788 was the first to record the word "squatter" as someone who settles on land without title to it.
So our Founding Fathers are well represented, but it is surprising to read in these pages that they were not the Founding Fathers until Warren G. Harding invented that term in 1918. Before that time, they were the "framers" or the "framers of the Constitution." (Harding is also responsible for the popularity, if not the origin, of "bloviate," which he himself defined as "to loaf about and enjoy oneself, to prattle on.") A similar surprise comes from the origin of the term "State of the Union." The address required, not necessarily annually, by the Constitution is to "give to Congress information of the State of the Union" but is not officially called that. It used to be "The President's Annual Message to Congress." Only in 1934 did Franklin D. Roosevelt refer to it by the name familiar to us.
FDR did not originate "Fireside Chat" for his famous radio addresses. It was suggested and first used by the Washington office of CBS, but only after the White House had approved of the term. FDR also did not originate the term "New Deal," but borrowed it from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. He did, however, give us the useful word "iffy." It is obvious that Dickson admires the other Roosevelt, Teddy, for some pungent and lasting coinages. "Bully Pulpit" is one. We don't now use the word "bully" as Teddy Roosevelt did, meaning "dandy" or "superb." He was just using it as an adjective when he said, after reading a presidential message, "I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!" The phrase caught on, and though there were complaints in Roosevelt's time that "bully" was being used excessively, nowadays we only use "bully" in Roosevelt's meaning when we couple it with "pulpit;" the two-word combination is so well known that the meaning of the adjective is seldom considered. Teddy Roosevelt also gave us "lunatic fringe," "mollycoddle," "weasel words," and "muckraker."
More recent presidents have not been so active. Nixon, without originating them, had coinages accrue around him, unsavory ones like "enemies list" or "expletive deleted." Reagan similarly did not originate "Reaganomics." George W. Bush was famous for fracturing the language, but Dickson has found that "misunderestimate" is now valued by some writers, and that his verb "embetter" was first used in 1583 (although it is hard to defend as long as the verb "better" works just as well). Our current president has had Obamacare tagged to him, and didn't invent "snowmaggedon" but popularized it. He has, so far, coined the useful "shovel-ready" and "Sputnik moment."
Words from the White House has all subject words listed alphabetically, each with a history and context for the coinage. There is an index of the names of coiners at the back. It will be enjoyed by anyone who likes thinking about words and their origins. The book endeavors to entertain with amusing stories about the words and the presidents, and aims to give us a new appreciation of the Neologizers-in-Chief. "Mission Accomplished" (attributed to George W. Bush, but merely on the banner behind him at the "end" of the war against Iraq).