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Never ‘Misunderestimate’ Word Power of the Presidency

With the second inauguration of President Obama next Monday, we thought we’d take a different look at the American presidency. We often think of the White House as a seat of power in the country and in the world, but we don’t usually think of it as a seat of words and language.

From Thomas Jefferson’s coining of “belittle” to George W. Bush’s (in)famous use of “misunderestimate,” the list of words and phrases invented by America’s presidents is long and surprising.

A new book looks at those words — “iffy” by Franklin Roosevelt, “normalcy” by Warren Harding and “Sputnik moment” by Barack Obama. Last week, I talked to Paul Dickson, author of “Words From the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents.”

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: With the inauguration coming up, we thought we’d take a different tack on the American presidency. We often think of the White House as the seat of power in the country and the world; we don’t usually think of it as a seat of words and language. A new book has taken up that challenge. It’s called ‘Words From the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents.’ The author is Paul Dickson. He’s a word man who has written many books on words and dictionaries. He join us now. Welcome.

PAUL DICKSON: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, tell us a little bit about the idea here. Why use the presidency as a way to look at language?

PAUL DICKSON: What really got me started on this was a discovery I made — I do other research in language — when I discovered that it was in fact President Harding — not one of our most illustrious presidents — who invented the phrase in 1920, ‘Founding Fathers.’


PAUL DICKSON: It did not exist before that.

JEFFREY BROWN: I never imagined this conversation would start with President Harding, but ok.

PAUL DICKSON: It was a conceit. Before, they were called the framers, and somehow he wanted to create a more collective view of their beliefs. Often, in early days of using ‘the Founding Fathers,’ it was used negatively. They would say, ‘The Founding Fathers never meant for this.’ It was finding that and thinking, ‘I always thought that was with us from the beginning.’ Then I started looking at the whole business of the words that were created by Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and of course and I started collecting and collecting. I kept findings dozens and then hundreds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of the Founding Fathers, what’s interesting to me — you write about the early presidents, you use this. Quote: ‘The early presidents felt that creating new words and new uses for old ones was part of their role in creating an American culture.’ That is, were they very aware and conscious of this?

PAUL DICKSON: There was actually an expression used between Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster, our first dictionary maker, they looked upon some of these things we were doing in this country as acts of defiance — creating public libraries were seen as almost a thumbing of the nose to the British.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? Like an act of independence?

PAUL DICKSON: Right. Where they didn’t have that or universal literacy. The other was creating an American language. Noah Webster early on says this is not the king’s English, this is not the language of the nobilities; it’s the language of the trapper and the farmer and the tradesman. So early on it was almost a patriotic thing. Thomas Jefferson to this day has 114 words credited to him in the Oxford English Dictionary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us an example.

PAUL DICKSON: The most famous, and the one that drove the British nuts, and even up through Fowlers Modern English Usage, which came out in the middle of the 20th century, still bothered by it, was ‘belittle.’

JEFFREY BROWN: ‘Belittle’?

PAUL DICKSON: It bothered the British deeply that an American could just come up with a word like this. They thought it was their language and we got to use it. We weren’t supposed to tinker with it. So when we start creating words that are coming from Native American tongues, like creek instead of brook, and we’re picking up words from the Dutch and we’re picking up all these other words — and sort of the American experience itself. Then Madison comes up with a word — he needs a word for a person who possesses somebody else’s property — comes up with ‘squatter.’ That’s not a British word. Then John Quincy Adams needs a word for a moment in which they’re shutting down all speech, and he comes up with ‘gag rule,’ So a lot of it was this idea that we’re creating a new society. Jefferson comes up with these odd things, who comes up with the ‘ottoman’ — not for the empire but for the footstool. It was very common among the early presidents up through — it continues right up through the 20th century, but it was a real effort, I think, even a conscious effort early on.

JEFFREY BROWN: A later theme to bring us further forward involves Woodrow Wilson, because you say Woodrow Wilson may have been the first president taken to task for his use of slang, a different use of language or creation of words.

PAUL DICKSON: This has always happened, and Woodrow Wilson was seen as a slangster. Abraham Lincoln was actually brought to task for using terms like ‘sugarcoated.’ He said something was sugarcoated, and the printer didn’t want to print it because he used this term, ‘sugarcoated.’

JEFFREY BROWN: He thought it wasn’t formal enough.

PAUL DICKSON: It was slangy. And when Eisenhower gave his second inaugural, he used the word ‘finalize.’ There were editorials written, safeguarders of English were upset that it really wasn’t a word, but, of course, Eisenhower was using a word that was probably common in the military at that time, common in bureaucracy and it was natural. He said when we ‘finalize’ these plans. And, of course, Eisenhower was very good with language and in fact creates one of the most memorable phrases of all time in second in his farewell speech, which is ‘military industrial complex.’

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a well known one, but ‘finalize’ — so a word like that or Lincoln or any president, what’s the process that then makes it to our ears a normal word? Just usage, I guess?

PAUL DICKSON: Yes. Going back to Harding again, Harding creates the word ‘bloviate,’ sort of the bluster on and such. But he also creates the word ‘normalcy.’ That was his campaign slogan: back to normalcy. And everybody says, ‘No, no he means normal; that’s not really a word.’ But, of course, it kept going, it kept going. And then toward George Bush after 9/11 said, ‘When we return to normalcy.’ So it worked its way from being sort of an outlaw word.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes they are, we should say, I mean, sometimes they are creating but more often they are sort of using it, I guess, or putting it out into the public.

PAUL DICKSON: Or just it comes, pops out of their head. There was a time in the mid-1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt said, ‘Some of the decisions of this court’, meaning the Supreme Court, ‘are iffy.’ The lead in some of the papers the next day were not what he said, but said, ‘The president created a word yesterday: iffy.’ For years after that when somebody would use iffy in a newspaper piece they said, ‘To use Franklin D. Roosevelt’s term, we think this decision was iffy.’ The other one that’s really interesting, about in ’34, he’s going to give his address to Congress — which has been there from Day One in the United States, you give the beginning of the year speech to Congress — Roosevelt renames it the State of the Union. So sometimes these words are sort of exalted.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to get up to President Obama, but we can’t skip over George W. Bush, because he took such ribbing for his —

PAUL DICKSON: You can’t ‘misunderestimate.’

JEFFREY BROWN: Misunderestimate. There you go. I think of my own kids who loved the ‘Saturday Night Live’ take-offs on him, where they’d use a word like ‘strategery’ or ‘dignatude.’ He was a great user of language.

PAUL DICKSON: But to give him his due, some of the words — I actually took some of them and looked them up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which if it was a physical book right now, it would be like 25 volumes, and some of those words have come in and out. Like ’embetter’ is actually in the Oxford English Dictionary, sort of a Middle English word for ‘make better.’

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think that’s where he got it?

PAUL DICKSON: No. But the fact is that they are not totally off course. Even ‘misunderestimated’ — there is a moment at which you want to say when you are working on some project around the house and you say you’re going to spend $300 and it costs $700: ‘Gee, I misunderestimated,’ you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so we’re up to the second inauguration of Barack Obama. Any great words or phrases that you can think of?

PAUL DICKSON: Well the most infamous, of course, was about Washington in the summer being ‘all wee-weed up.’ Nobody still really knows what he meant, but we sort of know. I credit him with ‘snowmageddon.’ That was the big snowstorm, I guess, it was 2009. He’s also good for ‘Sputnik moment,’ which is a very clever construction. It didn’t’ really take off, but for a moment it had its — it was his construction. It was the idea that America needed a challenge like Sputnik that would give it an outside force that would force us to do new things in science and become a better people. And ‘shovel ready’ is pretty much his too. That was his, early on.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you are watching the speech in a way slightly different than most of us.

PAUL DICKSON: Of course, yeah. I’m looking for that gem.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. This new book is called “Words from the White House.” Paul Dickson, nice to talk to you.

PAUL DICKSON: Thank you, sir.

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