All the president’s words
Whatever happened to our neologizers-in-chief?
When Barack Obama delivers his second inaugural address Monday, his speech will no doubt be full of the rhetorical flourishes we’ve come to expect. His words and phrases will go down in the history books. But will any end up in the dictionary?
It seems unlikely. Can you recall any contributions to the language from Obama’s first inauguration? The only word that stands out to me four years later is “faithfully,” which Chief Justice John Roberts misplaced while administering the oath of office without notes, necessitating a do-over ceremony the following day. (Come to think of it, I also remember “Swarovski,” the manufacturer of the crystals in Aretha Franklin’s jaw-dropping inaugural hat.)
We don’t expect Obama, however silver-tongued, to have a lasting effect on the lexicon. True, his predecessor, George W. Bush, was known for hatching words, but they were generally laughed off as disfluent gaffes: “misunderestimate,” “analyzation,” “embetterment.”
It wasn’t always thus. As Paul Dickson, a prolific writer about the English language, demonstrates in his new book, “Words from the White House,” presidents have historically taken a leading role in coining, or at least popularizing, new words and phrases. This was especially true in the early years of the Republic, when the American language, along with the national identity, was subject to lively reinvention. But nowadays, we’ve democratized that reinvention. On language, for better or worse, we no longer expect our presidents to lead the way.
No one embodied the neologizing spirit more than Thomas Jefferson. In fact, he’s credited with the earliest known example of the word “neologize”: “Necessity obliges us to neologize,” he wrote in an 1813 letter to the grammarian John Waldo. “I am a friend to neology,” he told John Adams seven years later. “It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.”
Jefferson contributed such words as “belittle,” “Anglophobia,” and “odometer.” The Oxford English Dictionary records more than a hundred words for which he supplies the first known use. Recent research has added to the list: His memorandum books from the 1780s reveal that Jefferson paid for an “ottoman” and obtained a “pedicure.”
Many words in Dickson’s dictionary-style list are associated with the White House simply because we pay more attention to presidential language than that of ordinary citizens. Not only is a president’s every public statement meticulously documented, but so too are many of his more private words, in journals and letters that work their way into archival collections.
Now that regional newspapers from throughout American history are being scanned and digitized, some words that Dickson presents as presidential firsts can be antedated by less celebrated sources. “Caucus” had long been thought to first appear in a 1763 diary entry by John Adams describing a “Caucas Clubb” in Boston, but researchers recently have found an article in the Boston Gazette three years earlier referring to a political club called “the New and Grand Corcas.” (Since 18th-century New Englanders were already dropping their r’s, “corcas” would have been pronounced the same as “caucus.”)
The lone word attributed to Abraham Lincoln in the OED, “Michigander” used to describe someone from Michigan, has been similarly undercut. In 1848, Lincoln referred to General Lewis Cass as “the great Michigander,” playfully combining “Michigan” with “gander,” since Cass was said by his opponents to resemble a goose. But last month on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, word sleuth Garson O’Toole shared earlier examples, going back to an 1842 Vermont newspaper.
Of course, even if a president isn’t the first to utter or write a particular term, he may be the primary popularizer. In the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt brought to the fore such colorful expressions as “lunatic fringe,” “muckraker,” “mollycoddle,” and “trust-busting.” Dickson calls Roosevelt “the top man” among presidential wordsmiths because of “the quality and sharpness of his constructions.”
By contrast, Warren G. Harding was never considered very sharp, wordwise. H.L. Mencken compared Harding’s verbiage to “a string of wet sponges” and “tattered washing on the line.” Nonetheless, Harding is credited with the famous phrase “the founding fathers,” as well as two words that stick with us today: “normalcy” and “bloviate.” The alliterative Harding declared in the 1920 campaign that America needed “not nostrums, but normalcy,” popularizing a previously rare alternative to “normality.” And he self-effacingly described his own speaking style as “bloviating,” a pseudo-Latin word for long-windedness that had been popular in Harding’s native Ohio.
Ultimately, presidents need not be Jeffersonian neologists, as long as they (with help from speechwriters) tap into the rich reservoirs of American English to express themselves. In Obama’s case, such expressiveness can include ambitious, high-flying terms like “new foundation” (a slogan from early in his first term) and “Sputnik moment” (from his 2011 State of the Union). But it can also be more earthy, as when he described Washington lawmakers in the summer of 2009 as “all wee-weed up.”
Presidential language, while still closely watched, no longer exerts the impact it once did. In part, that is because modern presidents are exceedingly careful about what they say, which puts a damper on linguistic innovation. But we are also swamped with so many forms of creative public discourse, online and in the mass media, that “words from the White House” don’t stand out as much. Turning word creation into a game that anyone can play fits the American egalitarian impulse. In the process, though, we’ve lost the lexical leadership that we once could get from the neologizer in chief.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.