Twis­ti­fy­ing his­tory

“First lady,” “en­e­mies list” and other terms in­vented by pres­i­dents.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - WORDS FROM THE WHITE HOUSE Words and Phrases Coined or Pop­u­lar­ized by Amer­ica’s Pres­i­dents By Paul Dick­son Walker. 197 pp. $18 lev­ingstons@wash­ Steven Lev­ingston is non­fic­tion ed­i­tor of Book World.

Pres­i­dent Obama is now hard at work carv­ing out his legacy — his heart set on be­ing re­mem­bered for de­ci­sive ac­tion on health care, gun con­trol, im­mi­gra­tion and equal rights. But there’s one arena where No. 44 has to pick up his game. So far, ac­cord­ing to lex­i­cog­ra­pher Paul Dick­son, Obama’s im­pact on our lan­guage has largely amounted to pass­ing on to the Amer­i­can peo­ple the phrase “wee-weed up.” Speak­ing at a na­tional health-care fo­rum in the sum­mer of 2009, Obama dropped the rather coarse ne­ol­o­gism to de­scribe the riledup mood in Washington: “There’s some­thing about Au­gust go­ing into Septem­ber where ev­ery­body in Washington gets all wee­weed up. I don’t know what it is. But that’s what hap­pens.” Not much of a lin­guis­tic legacy, so far. As Dick­son shows in his thor­oughly en­joy­able new book, “Words From the White House,” pres­i­dents have had an amus­ing and in­flu­en­tial im­pact on our lan­guage. In cre­at­ing a new na­tion, the found­ing fa­thers were also busy cre­at­ing a new lan­guage, with Thomas Jef­fer­son hav­ing a hand in more than 100 ad­di­tions to Amer­i­can English. “I am a friend to ne­ol­ogy,” Jef­fer­son wrote to John Adams in 1820. “It is the only way to give to a lan­guage co­pi­ous­ness and euphony.” One of Jef­fer­son’s most vivid creations — a sim­ple com­pound­ing of ideas — is “cir­cum­am­bu­la­tor” (one who walks around), which he used in de­scrib­ing ex­plorer John Led­yard, who wanted to be “the first cir­cum­am­bu­la­tor of the earth.”

Thumb­ing through this com­pact lex­i­con turns up some real treats. We dis­cover that the hoary-sound­ing term “found­ing fa­thers” isn’t of colo­nial vin­tage at all. It wasn’t un­til 1918 that the phrase en­tered the lan­guage, when War­ren G. Hard­ing, then a se­na­tor from Ohio, used it in re­marks to the Sons and Daugh­ters of the Rev­o­lu­tion: “It is good to meet and drink at the foun­tains of wis­dom in­her­ited from the found­ing fa­thers of the Repub­lic.” He pulled out the phrase again later that year, adding a twist that has stayed with us to this day. Com­plain­ing that Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son was in­ap­pro­pri­ately as­sum­ing pow­ers for him­self in post-World War I plan­ning, Hard­ing in­sisted that Congress should take the lead. “That was,” Hard­ing said, open­ing the lin­guis­tic flood­gates for gen­er­a­tions to come, “the in­tent of the found­ing fa­thers.” Be­fore Hard­ing, the men who gave birth to Amer­ica were known as the “framers” or “the framers of the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

The pres­i­dents’ words serve as es­corts through his­tory, re­flect­ing the char­ac­ter and times of the men who ut­tered them. Abra­ham Lin­coln fa­mously de­fined his era in a phrase when, ad­dress­ing the is­sue of slav­ery, he told the Repub­li­can state con­ven­tion in 1858, “A house di­vided against it­self can­not stand.” That pow­er­ful rhetoric, Dick­son re­minds us, is only partly Lin­coln’s, for the orig­i­nal phras­ing is found in the Gospel of Mark: “And if a house be di­vided against it­self, that house can­not stand.” Theodore Roo­sevelt was char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ram­bunc­tious in dash­ing off col­or­ful phrases; for ex­am­ple: “lu­natic fringe,” which he cre­ated to de­scribe cu­bists and other artists with works on dis­play at a con­tro­ver­sial 1913 ex­hibit in New York.

Some pres­i­den­tial phrases show that the arc of Amer­i­can his­tory is some­times just a mo­not­o­nous straight line. Back in 1948, Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man, high­light­ing the in­ac­tion of Congress, forced the cham­ber into a spe­cial ses­sion dur­ing the sum­mer and minted a ver­bal slap for the delin­quent body: the “donoth­ing Congress,” which sounds as fresh as to­mor­row’s head­lines.

Richard Nixon’s trou­bled pres­i­dency left its stains on the lan­guage with phrases that bring that era force­fully back to life. John Dean, Nixon’s White House coun­sel, re­vealed the in­ner work­ings of the ad­min­is­tra­tion when he tes­ti­fied be­fore the Se­nate Water­gate Com­mit­tee in 1973 and in­tro­duced the term “en­e­mies list.” Nixon’s sec­re­tary, Rose Mary Woods, who was or­dered to take “the rough stuff ” out when tran­scrib­ing the White House tapes, made lib­eral use of the lin­guis­tic equiv­a­lent of Wite-Out: the term “ex­ple­tive deleted.”

The phrases are ar­ranged al­pha­bet­i­cally, with an in­dex of proper names at the back. Some are so much a part of our ev­ery­day par­lance that it’s an aha moment to re­al­ize that a pres­i­dent ac­tu­ally thought them up. Take the term “first lady.” Isn’t this how we’ve al­ways de­scribed the pres­i­dent’s wife? Each one may have been re­garded as a first lady, but the term didn’t ar­rive un­til Zachary Tay­lor, the 12th pres­i­dent, re­put­edly used it in 1849 while eu­lo­giz­ing the wife of the fourth pres­i­dent, James Madi­son. Tay­lor is be­lieved to have said of Dol­ley Madi­son, who died at age 81: “She will never be for­got­ten be­cause she was truly our first lady for half a cen­tury.”

As the Obama ad­min­stra­tion and its op­po­nents gear up to wran­gle over a range of con­sti­tu­tional ques­tions, it isn’t hard to imag­ine that one Jef­fer­so­nian cre­ation that has dropped out of cur­rency may find its way back in. Jef­fer­son was far from happy with the in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Con­sti­tu­tion ren­dered by Chief Jus­tice John Mar­shall. With­er­ingly, he deemed them “twisti­fi­ca­tions.”


The Repub­li­can Party stands, and al­ways has stood, for spe­cial in­ter­ests. They have proved that con­clu­sively in the record that they made in this

“do-noth­ing” Congress.

Harry Tru­man, cam­paign­ing in Elizabeth, N.J.,

Oct. 7, 1948

“She will never be for­got­ten be­cause she was truly our first lady

for half a cen­tury.”

Zachary Tay­lor,

eu­lo­giz­ing Dol­ley Madi­son

in 1849. “It is good to meet and drink at the foun­tains of wis­dom in­her­ited from the found­ing fa­thers of the Repub­lic.”

War­ren G. Hard­ing,

as a se­na­tor, ad­dress­ing the Sons and Daugh­ters of the

Rev­o­lu­tion in 1918

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