18th February 2019
5 Presidential Words and Phrases for Presidents’ Day
Some presidents have their faces carved into mountains. Others appear on our money. But some presidents have also left a mark on the English language. So to mark Presidents’ Day this year, we’re taking a look at some interesting words and phrases popularized by US presidents.
1. Washington’s Administration
George Washington was the first President of the United States. It is thus appropriate that he was also the first person to use “administration” to refer to a president’s time in office.
Washington is, in fact, cited as the first person to use of a number of words, including common terms such as “indoors” and “average.” However, this is partly because Washington’s diaries have been preserved while other documents from the time have been lost. As such, “indoors” and “average” were probably in common use even before Washington wrote them down.
2. Harding’s Founding Fathers
The term “Founding Fathers” is now commonly used to refer to the men involved in founding the United States, including those who drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence. But this phrase only caught on when Warren G. Harding used it in a speech in 1918. To be exact, in a speech to The Sons and Daughters of the Revolution in Washington, DC, Harding said:
“It is good to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the Republic.” — Address on Washington’s Birthday (1918).
Harding also used the phrase in a speech when he was officially notified of his nomination for the presidency. And since then it has become a common part of our language.
3. FDR’s “Iffy” Language
Even today, “iffy” is not an especially statesmanlike word. So it must have sounded very strange when Franklin D. Roosevelt invented it in the 1930s.
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In particular, he enjoyed using it at press briefings, where he would dismiss hypothetical queries he did not like as “iffy” questions (i.e., questions that depend on an “if” scenario rather than current facts).
4. Lincoln Sugarcoats a Message to Congress
Abraham Lincoln was not the first person to use the term “sugarcoat” to mean “make something superficially attractive.” It was, in fact, a common colloquialism before he got to it. But this term may have been too common for John Defrees, the man in charge of public printing at the time, who described its use in a message to congress as “undignified.”
Abe was not put off, though, replying to Defrees that the controversial word “expresses precisely my idea, and I am not going to change it. The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what sugar-coated means!” And so far, at least, Lincoln was right.
5. George Bush Jr’s Linguistic Creativity
Finally, we end with a president not widely celebrated for his linguistic achievements: George W. Bush. But Bush Jr’s habit of misspeaking gave rise to entirely new words, such as “misunderestimate,” meaning to underestimate by mistake. And who are we to say that he is wrong? It may only be a matter of time before “misunderstimate” enters the dictionary.
That said, we’re still confused by what he meant when he said “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” So perhaps we shouldn’t get carried away with our Bushisms quite yet…
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