September 6, 2018
When the U.S. president talks, most Americans listen. So it’s no surprise that our chiefs of state have had a huge impact on the English language Business Insider reported on September 5.
You’d be surprised at the words in common usage today that first were spoken by a U.S. president. Perhaps the most prolific were Theodore Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding, who came up with five and three, respectively.
The following words, which first were heard wafting from the White House, according to the business news outlet and History.com, are now part of the American lexicon:
- Administration – George Washington: Our first president set the standard for all US presidents to come—and was instrumental in establishing the language we use to describe our government. Although the word, “administration,” has been in use since the 14th century, it was Washington who first chose it to refer to a leader’s time in office. According to History.com, Washington’s original use of the word came in his 1796 farewell address when he said, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error.”
- Belittle – Thomas Jefferson: America’s third president introduced the word “belittle,” meaning to make someone or something seem unimportant. The earliest use of the word seems to be a 1781 note of Jefferson’s in which he said of the American people, “The Count de Buffon believes that nature belittles her productions on this side of the Atlantic.”
- Squatter – James Madison: In a 1788 letter to Washington, James Madison delineated several factions who might be opposed to the newly drafted U.S. Constitution, including a group of representatives from Maine who occupied land owned by others and to which they had no legal title. “Many of them and their constituents are only squatters upon other people’s land, and they are afraid of being brought to account,” wrote Madison.
- OK – Martin Van Buren: The word, “OK,” has a rich history, and eighth president Martin Van Buren played a major role in ensuring its lasting popularity. There are a few explanations of how “OK” came about, but the most popular one pegs it to an 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post. Van Buren then popularized the word during his 1840 election campaign, as a rallying cry. At that time, OK stood for “oll korrect,” as in, “all correct.” Apparently, it was a popular fad among educated elites to deliberately misspell their slang words. Other abbreviations of the era included NC for “nuff ced” and KG for “know go.”
- First Lady – Zachary Taylor: During the first few administrations, the president’s wife was commonly referred to as the “presidentress”—quite a mouthful. Not until Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison in 1849 did that begin to change. “She will never be forgotten because she was truly our First Lady for a half-century,” the 12th president wrote of the widow of the fourth president.
- Sugarcoat – Abraham Lincoln: Not only did Abraham Lincoln pioneer the use of “sugarcoat” in the sense of making something bad seem more attractive or pleasant, but he stirred up a minor controversy with the word, too. In 1861, four months after he was inaugurated, Lincoln wrote a letter to Congress as Southern states were threatening to secede from the Union. “With rebellion thus sugar-coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than 30 years, until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government,” Lincoln wrote.
- Lunatic fringe—Theodore Roosevelt : America’s 26th president—whose contributions to the popular lexicon included “bully pulpit,” “muckraker,” “loose cannon” and “pack rat”—was the most masterful president at coining new phrases. “Even beyond his presidency, Roosevelt added to his linguistic legacy when in his review of the avant-garde Armory Show in 1913 the unimpressed former president wrote, “The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.” The term soon crossed over from the art world to the political arena to characterize those with beliefs well outside the mainstream.
- Bloviate – Warren G. Harding: Warren Harding also had a way with words. He popularized the terms, “Founding Fathers” and “Normalcy.” But, if you thought that the term, “Bloviator,” came from the TV shows, “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons,” you would be wrong. To bloviate is to speak pompously and long-windedly—something Harding readily acknowledged that he did frequently. The president once described bloviation as “the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants, and saying nothing.” His usage was sourced from the more common word, “blowhard.”
- Iffy – Franklin D. Roosevelt: FDR began using the word “iffy” early in his presidency, and by virtually all accounts, he was the first known person to have used it. That’s according to Paul Dickson, the author of the book, Words from the White House, which tracked the influence that U.S. presidents have wielded on the English language. When dismissing hypothetical questions from the press, FDR would say, “That’s an iffy question.”
- Fake news – Donald Trump: While fake news traditionally refers to disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news, Trump’s repeated use of the term has given way to a new definition: “actual news that is claimed to be untrue.” Trump’s reimagining of fake news became so widespread in his first year as president that the American Dialect Society declared it the Word of the Year in 2017.
Research contact: @HISTORY