When I originally sat down to type this post, I intended to write a second installment of “Word or Not a Word?” (You can read the original post here.)
But I changed my mind. I still intend to dedicate a full post to the topic, just not this time. That’s because as I was researching how words come to be and how they evolve over time, or how fake words morph into real ones, I stumbled across some interesting history.
Turns out dozens of English words we use every day were originally coined by U.S. presidents. Or at least their coinages and subsequent absorption into the lexicon are attributed to U.S. presidents. The timing of my tardy discovery is also tardy—I wish I would have learned this tasty bit of trivia in time for a President’s Day post. Or perhaps this post is right on time, since the US of A is once again in the midst of yet another three-ring presidential campaign with the attendant verbal sparring, insult trading, pandering, fearmongering, half-truth spinning, and bloviating we’ve come to expect. Interestingly, the word “bloviating” was bestowed upon us by none other than America’s 29th president, Warren G. Harding.
It’s true, though: American presidents, especially the founding fathers (“founding fathers” is yet another invention of Harding’s), have had a hand in shaping the English language. The nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, had perhaps the heaviest hand—he’s credited with coining some 100 words. Among other laudatory titles (and some not-so-laudatory ones we won’t mention here), Jefferson was the original Neologist-in-Chief. Which is perfect since the word neologize—the verbification of neology—is attributed to ol’ Jeffers. Perfect also because neologizing, or, coining new words, was part of POTUS 3’s agenda.
According to author Paul Dickson, in a 2013 article titled “In the Words of the Presidents,” published by the Saturday Evening Post, “The early presidents felt that creating new words and new uses for old ones was part of their role in creating an American culture. ‘I am a friend to neology,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1820. ‘It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.’ And the early presidents had Noah Webster and his followers at hand to legitimize their brave new words.” (You’ll recognize Noah Webster as the Webster of Webster’s Dictionary.)
Jefferson’s neologisms include pedicure, belittle, odometer, ottoman (as a footstool), lengthily, indecipherable, monotonously, and the apt Anglophobia—apt considering the nascent country’s contentious relationship with its former owners. That Jefferson thought of all 100 words, or even some of them, is debatable, of course. He gets credit for his neologisms for the very reason that he was (and remains) an important figure, meaning his archives have been preserved, and in them appear the first known occurrences of those 100 words. Other, less-significant folks could have beaten T.J. to the punch, but any supporting documentation disintegrated to dust long ago. Plus, as my SMITH colleague, Susan Walter, said, when you co-author a document of great import, such as, say, the Declaration of Independence, you’re entitled to claim a few of the words as your own.
Coining words didn’t begin or end with Jefferson. POTUS Number 1, George Washington, kicked things off with “hatchet man,” “cradler” (a farm hand who reaps with a cradle scythe), and nearly three dozen more. John Adams came up with “caucus.” Abraham Lincoln contributed “sugarcoat” and “Michigander.” Besides “bloviate,” the original Warren G. also gave us “normalcy.” Theodore Roosevelt uncorked such colorful terms as “muckraker,” “bully pulpit,” and “lunatic fringe.” Finally, Dwight Eisenhower offered up “finalize.”
Obviously, not all presidents have coined new words. And one president in particular, George W. Bush, has the dubious distinction of introducing some pretty questionable neologisms into the lexicon. Not known for his eloquence or faculty with vocabulary, G-Dub discharged such pseudo-words as “misunderestimate,” “analyzation,” and “embitterment” during his eight-year reign of grammatical error.
Given all that’s at stake in this year’s presidential election—a four-year stay in some pretty fancy digs, unlimited limo and plane rides, 24-hour room service, and the Presidential Twitter account—we can expect the rhetoric to get increasingly heated. And who knows? Perhaps Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or The Donald or what’s her name, the Green Party candidate (Dr. Jill Stein, if you’re curious) will bloviate some new English words into existence along the campaign trail—that is if their doublespeak, empty promises, or sizable feet don’t get in the way.
Joe Ehrbar is a senior editor at SMITH.