“Ask not what your country can do for you…” “Four score and seven years ago…” These iconic words first spoken by American presidents are now deeply woven into our culture. But Commanders-in-Chief have left a subtler–and possibly more influential–mark on American language: Electioneering, public relations, normalcy, and executive privilege are all presidential neologisms (neologism itself being a term likely coined by Thomas Jefferson). We explore how presidents have influenced, and even invented, the language we speak.


  • Paul Dickson Author of more than 55 nonfiction books and contributing editor at Washingtonian Magazine.


  • 12:38:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe can all think of a phrase from a memorable presidential speech -- the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, tear down that wall, ask not what your country can do for you. These iconic words have woven their way into our collective culture, but we don't often think of presidents as inventors of language. Yet a surprising number of terms we use regularly were coined by commanders-in-chief. Thomas Jefferson alone is said to have originated over 100 words. And many more words and phrases were little known until they were popularized by presidents. Joining us today to explore presidential language on this Presidents Day is Paul Dickson, author of more than 50 non-fiction books including books on history, baseball and language. He's also a contributing editor at Washingtonian Magazine. Paul, Happy Presidents Day. Good to see you.

  • 12:39:27

    MR. PAUL DICKSONSame to you, Kojo.

  • 12:39:28

    NNAMDIPaul, our first president, George Washington, is likely to have invented several words -- indoors, non-discrimination, off-duty, paroled, reconnoiter, bakery, average used as a verb, ravine. He was a wordsmith, was he not, as most presidents are.

  • 12:39:45

    DICKSONYeah. I think that's what get you there. You have to be able to give a sort of a cogent account of yourself when you're campaigning, when you're talking to people. And you have to basically elevate the understanding of the people that are listening to you. So a catchy phrase, a new word, people listen. And in those days, they had no radio, no television, obviously, so it's carried by the press. But when the president came up with a new word, it was a big deal. John Adams, who followed Washington, came up with some wonderful stuff, including quixotic, you know, after Don Quixote, meaning -- and bobolink and caucus. Caucus was -- the first use of the word caucus is in the writings of John Adams. And the other one I love is he came up with the word spec. As if -- well, it sounds like a modern real estate term...

  • 12:40:32

    NNAMDIWhat are the specs, yeah.

  • 12:40:33

    DICKSONYeah, yeah. What's -- or speculation, you know, what are you -- I bought that thing on spec.

  • 12:40:39

    NNAMDIOh. In that use of the term.

  • 12:40:40

    DICKSONYeah, that -- so that spec. And so, the other one that's funny, we -- you mentioned George Washington. His was, of course, hatchet man. But that was really for a pioneer, a person where you chop down trees.

  • 12:40:50

    NNAMDINot for a thug.

  • 12:40:51

    DICKSONNot for a thug, no.

  • 12:40:52

    NNAMDIHow about John Adams, did he also invent the word lengthy?

  • 12:40:56

    DICKSONYeah -- lengthy. I mean, these are words which were waiting to be made up. (laugh) The other one was bobolink for the bird. And then -- and, of course, Jefferson came along and just -- he came up with over, as you said, over a hundred. I mean, there's -- some of my favorite Jefferson words are belittle….

  • 12:41:14

    NNAMDIOh, yeah. I like that.

  • 12:41:15

    DICKSON...public relations, pedicure, which I love, bid as in actually bidding on something, not just the noun, but a verb which is wonderful. We couldn't have eBay without bid. And then my -- Anglophile, which is a term, you know, for a person who emulates things that are British or loves British things. He created it as a pejorative, as a negative, like he's nothing but an Anglophile. I mean, he didn't have this -- an American temperament. And then...

  • 12:41:42

    NNAMDIHe might have done that in reaction or in retaliation for some not so kind things that the British were saying about his tendency to create words.

  • 12:41:51

    DICKSONThat's right.

  • 12:41:52

    DICKSONThat's right. And the British hated this because the British have -- were very prescriptive about language. And going all the way back to Noah Webster, Americans believe that you listen and wrote down the words people were actually speaking. The king is English, which was the British system, was to tell you, learned men sitting around, stroking their beards will tell you what words were useful and could be used and what words weren't.

  • 12:42:18

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. What's the most memorable thing you've heard a president say? 800-433-8850. Was it, I'm President of the United States, I don't have to eat broccoli if I don't want to? (laugh) 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Thomas Jefferson, as you pointed out, was likely our most prolific inventor of language. The term neologism is -- or the term for a newly coined word was itself supposedly first used by Jefferson.

  • 12:42:51

    DICKSONYes, yes. And he's also -- but the other one that I think is fairly stunning is he's the first one to coin the phrase separation between church and state, separation of church and state. And that he invents that in 1802, well, year, many years after the Constitution is actually written. He's writing a letter to a group of people in Danbury, Connecticut trying to explain the First Amendment. And he said, this is all about separation of church and state. And when you learn that, you realize that other terms we bandy about which we think are in the Constitution like separation of powers, interstate commerce, et cetera, are really words that were invented later. But this one, this church and state thing is a stunner because that was Jefferson.

  • 12:43:32

    NNAMDIHe actually wrote a wall of separation between church and state and that was a letter that he was writing in 1802. And it seemed like we just misremember these phrases and we put them in the Constitution when they aren't there, when in fact it came from a letter that he -- apparently he also believed that it was necessary to enrich a language with new words and new terms.

  • 12:43:57

    DICKSONThat was very American. And that goes back to Noah Webster who basically believed it was a total separation from the British. And Webster and Benjamin Franklin actually believed that to create an American language and create a library system and a copyright system, none of which existed in Britain, were acts of resistance, acts of rebellion. And when Franklin forms the first library, free library in Philadelphia, where everybody can go and borrow books, he's doing this as an act of sedition, an act of sort of thumbing his nose at the British, and you guys don't believe the common man should be able to have, you know, be able to read books and learn.

  • 12:44:36

    NNAMDII'm so glad you mentioned Benjamin Franklin because he's probably turning over in his grave when he hears people say today, hey, it's all about the Benjamins, man. What are you talking about?

  • 12:44:44

    DICKSONThe Franklin. (laugh)

  • 12:44:45

    NNAMDIYes. New words that can be added to the language. Public relations, you said, was a Tom -- a term that Thomas Jefferson first used that we still use today?

  • 12:44:50

    DICKSONYeah, yeah. And you can go through -- I mean, I guess, one of the -- the only one that ranks -- there are two that rank with Jefferson for creating words. One was Teddy Roosevelt. He -- I mean, his -- are classic. Muckraker...

  • 12:45:06

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 12:45:06

    DICKSON...the bully pulpit, describing the presidency, weasel words for euphemisms, for words that, sort of, weasel their way around the truth. Big stick, meaning, you know, sort of, a strong foreign policy. Harding is interesting 'cause he came up with some real doozies that were, sort of, misinformed. They said that Harding -- somebody once said that Harding can speak of -- this is Warren Gamaliel Harding, could speak a single sentence and make six grammatical errors in the sentence. (laugh) But he came up with the term normalcy.

  • 12:45:38


  • 12:45:40

    DICKSONAnd it was a barbarism. It was an uncouth use of the language. But it described perfectly the return from after, you know, the depression and period of financial distress. And is used -- it was used just a couple of weeks ago about Egypt. It said Egypt was returning to normalcy.

  • 12:45:58

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you can think of words that were either invented or coined by presidents or, for that matter, anybody else, 800-433-8850. Let's go to Andrew in Mt. Pleasant in Washington. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:46:14

    ANDREWHi. I just been reading the new Roosevelt biography, "Colonel Roosevelt." And I learned that Roosevelt coined the term pussyfooting...

  • 12:46:27


  • 12:46:27

    ANDREW...and I was gonna ask what other terms he coined. But I think you answered some of those while I was on hold.

  • 12:46:34

    DICKSONYes. And there was a lot of beliefs he would use words so often. There was a word -- the word strenuous. He said, we've got to learn to live a strenuous life. And people started to believe he actually invented the term even though it was an old Latin term. But he also -- he would -- for example, he used to say about baseball, he didn't think it was manly enough game. He called it a mollycoddle. And that was another term that he came up, which he was trying to come up with something that was sort of not very manly, not very strenuous. (laugh)

  • 12:47:07

    NNAMDIAnd mollycoddling is still around today.

  • 12:47:09


  • 12:47:10

    NNAMDIWhen we talk about public relations, the term public enemy, it's my understanding, was recorded as far back as the 18th Century in 1756. So for people who are out there who may think that it was invented in 1982 by Chuck D of the aforementioned, former hip-hop group Public Enemy...

  • 12:47:28


  • 12:47:28

    NNAMDI...no, it goes back as far as the 18th Century. Andrew, thank you very much for your call.

  • 12:47:33

    DICKSONThank you.

  • 12:47:33

    NNAMDIYou too can call us 800-433-8850. Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States, was particularly expressive in his language, but not necessarily in a good way. The term bloviate was a word that existed prior to Harding's presidency, but used very often to describe Harding's incomprehensible speech and prose.

  • 12:47:57

    DICKSONYeah. And Harding himself used the term. He made it popular, but his definition was to loaf it about and enjoy oneself. So he said, oh, I'm just gonna go back to the farm and bloviate for a couple of days. (laugh) And this is the president of the United States and, of course, everybody else knew that bloviate meant to, sort of -- to babble on, to sort of be incorrect and overblown in your language. Most interesting thing about Harding, and his language was so poor, they called it gamelializ (sp?) because his middle name was Gamaliel. That was the language.

  • 12:48:28

    DICKSONThe really interesting thing is that Harding comes up in his -- when he's running his campaign for the presidency, he comes up with this term founding fathers, which does not exist before then. Day after day, he's making the papers with the term, the founding fathers did not believe we should do this, or the founding fathers believed, or we should revert to the belief of the founding fathers. So for the first time, Harding brings us this term, which we now use almost indiscriminately -- and it sort of packages the people who wrote the Constitution as having sort of a uniform view of the country, which, of course, was nonsense.

  • 12:49:07

    NNAMDIAnd, of course, Harding's reputation, as we pointed out earlier, was for using words or coining words inadvertently. We can't talk about that without mentioning our most recent ex-president, George W. Bush. Probably, his most famous was in Bentonville, Ark., in 2000 when he said, "They misunderestimated me."

  • 12:49:25

    DICKSON...estimated. Yes. That's -- and he had a number of them -- embetter, to make emotionally better. Embetter.

  • 12:49:32

    NNAMDIYeah. Explain to our listening audience how he used embetter. He said, I think, I wanna thank the dozens of welfare to work stories, the actual examples of people who made the firm and solemn commitment to work hard to embetter themselves.

  • 12:49:47


  • 12:49:48

    NNAMDIIn order -- in other words, to make themselves better, not to make themselves bitter, which is what embitter would be about. To what extent is it likely that words like that coined inadvertently -- especially, I'm thinking, misunderestimate -- might actually find their way into the dictionary at some point?

  • 12:50:05

    DICKSONWell, there was a -- President Eisenhower was a great creator of words. He created the word -- phrase, military industrial complex, which still resonates.

  • 12:50:13

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 12:50:13

    DICKSONAnd he also created the word executive privilege, which didn't exist before then. The concept of not testifying in front of Congress if you're a president existed, but Eisenhower gave it a name. Now, when Eisenhower, in a speech, actually said prioritize, he turned the word priority into a verb, perhaps inadvertently. The New York Times showed a fairly tough editorial saying, we shouldn't be doing this, turning these -- changing these words, turning priority, which is a noun, into a verb, to prioritize.

  • 12:50:43

    NNAMDIGood luck with that. (laugh)

  • 12:50:44

    DICKSONYeah. And, again, it wasn't -- there was nothing wrong with it. I mean, the other thing is to think about how important these words are. In other words, a president comes up with a term like the new deal, the fair deal, Medicare, Social Security. One of the problems that President Obama is having, to some degree -- and this was pointed out by The Wall Street Journal -- he didn't really give his program, his health reform program, a name. So the opposition...

  • 12:51:12

    NNAMDIGave it the name ObamaCare.

  • 12:51:14

    DICKSONAnd you also see the power of these words. I mean, the Palinism, which is death panels, it's totally inaccurate. It's totally false. But it got the job done for what she was trying to do. And so these terms -- some of them are funny. Some of them are quaint. But they also -- there are also turning points involved in a lot of them, and I think especially of terms like...

  • 12:51:40

    NNAMDII know military industrial complex.

  • 12:51:41

    DICKSONMilitary industrial complex is a pure example. But new deal.

  • 12:51:45

    NNAMDIOh, definitely.

  • 12:51:46


  • 12:51:46

    NNAMDIOn the other hand, there are those that don't catch on in the same way that military industrial complex caught on for Eisenhower. Another phrase he used, academic intellectual complex, never caught on.

  • 12:51:57

    DICKSONRight. Well, actually, they're same speech, but those guys don't wanna -- (laugh) they don't wanna think they're part of the problem, right?

  • 12:52:02

    NNAMDIHere now is JB in Washington, D.C. JB, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:08

    JBGood afternoon. I'm sure that we don't want to become like the French who have an entire bureau dedicated to the preservation of their language. We have such a rich language in America. And I noticed that you used a couple of those wonderful made-up words. You yourself, Mr. Nnamdi, said, there was a whole 'nother thing. And while 'nother isn't a word, it's certainly one of my favorite non-words to use. And I noticed also that your guest referred to something as a doozie, which was a derivative of the wonderful old automobile, the Duesenberg, which was introduced into the language back in the day. So thank you so much for this interesting dissertation on language.

  • 12:53:00

    NNAMDIThank you very much...

  • 12:53:01

    DICKSONThank you...

  • 12:53:01

    NNAMDI...for your call, JB.

  • 12:53:01

    DICKSONThank -- that was -- you know, Erin McKean, who's a leading lexicographer, said one time -- somebody said, that word is not in the dictionary. It's not really a word. And she said -- her response was, you don't need a pedigree to be a dog. (laugh)

  • 12:53:14

    NNAMDI(laugh) Right. And who knows when it will get into the dictionary? Teddy Roosevelt was probably also the one who coined the term lunatic fringe.

  • 12:53:21


  • 12:53:21

    NNAMDIBut it's not as in popular use today as it may once have been.

  • 12:53:24

    DICKSON(laugh) Yeah, because it's grown.

  • 12:53:26

    NNAMDIThe fringe has grown, so we can't call it lunatic anymore. Here is Ashley in Fairfax, Va. Ashley, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:33

    ASHLEYYes. I'm very interested in this conversation. And I was sort of thinking about when you're discussing Harding and how maybe some of the phrases that George W. Bush has made up, over time, how that will affect future language and what will that do to us, potentially, for better, for worse.

  • 12:53:55

    DICKSONI don't think it'll affect us one way or the other. I think it's -- I mean, when President Obama said, coming into the summer -- I guess it was 2009 -- he said, oh, this is the time of the year whenever everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up. (laugh)

  • 12:54:07

    NNAMDIYeah, that's... (laugh)

  • 12:54:09

    DICKSONAnd I don't think the country is any weaker or stronger because he said that. So, I mean, you know, it's -- I'm trying to pick totally on George Bush for making these blunders, but they all -- everybody does it, including Kojo and myself. But -- so -- but I think wee-weed up is a wonderful term.

  • 12:54:24

    NNAMDIIndeed, I was wondering where the heck he got that term from. Here is Bill in Bethesda, Md. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Bill. Are you there?

  • 12:54:35

    BILLYes. Yes, I am. You might have already discussed this, but I understand that President Grant, while sitting in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, invented the word lobbyists.

  • 12:54:45

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 12:54:45

    DICKSONThat's -- that is actually true. And that is -- that's one of his great contributions. And you know what? Part of what I'm doing here today, I'm just starting to work on a book on all this. And so I -- I'm taking this down, and I've forgotten that about Grant, and I realized I'd read that.

  • 12:55:00

    NNAMDIThank you very much for adding to that -- adding to our conversation, Bill. Here is Ty in Kensington, Md. Ty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:55:09

    TYYes. Good afternoon. It's a very interesting topic. I got a degree from -- a master's degree from Howard looking at rhetoric and intercausal communication. So I'm very aware of language. I remember prior to 9/11, I was sitting in a parking garage, listening to NPR, and Bush was talking about something going on on Wall Street. He used the word malfeance. And I thought, no, he didn't say that. And for me, it was like, what is he saying? I didn't quite get it. And it kind of made me aware of where this gentleman may or may not be going. You know, politics notwithstanding, you know, language, for me, is a pretty important thing, kind of gives me a sense of where you may or may not land, I don't know, intellectually.

  • 12:55:52

    NNAMDIMalfeance. No one knew what Harding was saying, Paul Dickson, when he said normalcy, right?

  • 12:55:58

    DICKSONNo, but when I -- in context, it's -- it -- I mean, it's now in the dictionary and it's now -- I mean, we used that after 9/11. We said, you know, we hope the country can return to normalcy. And now it's become sort of part of the American vocabulary. I'm sure the British don't use it.

  • 12:56:15

    NNAMDIPresident George W. Bush, one of our callers, who couldn't stay on the line mentioned, also used the word strategery, which I don't know if we'll be using a lot in the future. You know what's interesting to me? If at some point 9/11 is going to become a verb, where people will say, somebody else was trying to 9/11 us again and we were able to stop it.

  • 12:56:33

    DICKSONBut -- that's interesting. One influence it has is I've heard several people now referred to the -- what went on in Egypt, the revolution or whatever in Egypt, as 2/11.

  • 12:56:45


  • 12:56:46

    DICKSONFeb. 9, 2011.

  • 12:56:48

    NNAMDIJohn F. Kennedy first used the term affirmative action, something that has remained in the lexicon and taken on all kinds of both positive and negative connotations, depending on who's using it.

  • 12:57:00

    DICKSONNo. In fact, that was part of his executive order. He was looking for a term that was gonna describe what he was trying to achieve. And, of course, the phrase, it harks back to military industrial complex and new deal and fear -- the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, is that when you give something a name, it then becomes -- at least you have something to react to, something to hang your hat on. And I think affirmative action was exactly what it pretended to be, a description of what he hoped to accomplish in terms of racial injustice.

  • 12:57:33

    NNAMDIAnd that term affirmative action is still around today, as is bloviate and Anglophile and other words that presidents of the United States either invented or coined. I just wanna see if wee-weed up makes it into the dictionary at some point (laugh) and exactly what does it mean.

  • 12:57:52

    DICKSONBut nobody knows. But I mean -- it sort of means that you get all -- you know, the -- what I saw when he said wee-weed up, I was thinking of some hand ringer, you know, saying, we're getting all upset about some provision of some bill. So -- but we've just used it on the radio, and umpteen thousand people have just heard it said.

  • 12:58:09

    NNAMDIPaul Dickson is the author of more than 50 non-fiction books, including books on history, baseball and language. He's also a contributing editor at Washingtonian Magazine. I don't know if he's wee-weed up today, though. (laugh) Paul, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:58:24

    DICKSONPrivileged information.

  • 12:58:25

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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