In 2013, Paul Dickson published the book Words from the White House (Walker & Company), which presents, in glossary form, words and phrases that were either coined, popularized, or had their meanings changed by U.S. presidents. Such words seem only a fitting topic during the week of Presidents’ Day.
Most of the entries fall under the “popularized by” category, and certainly presidential speechwriters deserve as much credit (or blame) as the presidents for creating new words. (William Safire, for example, is given credit for Vice Presient Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism.”)
The following, though, all appear to have been coined by a president, either as a new word or a new meaning for an older word, though not necessarily while they were president.
anglomania and anglophobia (Thomas Jefferson)
Thomas Jefferson was known to have invented, developed, or improved a number of useful gizmos, but he didn’t stop there. He tinkered with the language, too. Dickson notes that the Oxford English Dictionary “credits Thomas Jefferson with 110 new words and 382 new senses for older words.” Two of those new words, anglomania and anglophobia, reflect the love-hate relationship a young America had with Great Britain. Anglomania is an excessive fondness for all things English, and anglophobia is a fear or dread of all things English.
belittle (Thomas Jefferson)
Coined in 1788, belittle meant simply to reduce in size, though it seems to have fairly quickly taken on a more metaphorical meaning. It seems a number of logophiles found the word disgraceful and attempted to kill it, so that, even by 1937, H.W. Fowler would write, “it is still felt by many to be an undesirable alien.”
Fans of The Simpsons know that the opposite of to belittle is to embiggen.
cheerleader (Franklin Roosevelt)
I know, when you think cheerleader, you think George W. Bush, right? But he wasn’t the only president with school spirit. The OED cites Franklin D. Roosevelt as the first to leave evidence of cheerleader‘s use, in 1903: “I was one of three cheer leaders in the Brown game.” (As opposed to a Browns game, for which three cheerleaders seems excessive.)
Founding Fathers (Warren Harding)
Founding Fathers is one of those phrases that is so ingrained in our American vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine that it ever didn’t exist, but it’s really a fairly recent coinage. Warren G. Harding, who apparently had a thing for alliteration, is credited with having come up with it in 1918, as a U.S. Senator. He then used it throughout his 1920 presidential campaign. The gender-specific Founding Fathers replaced the more neutral the framers to refer to the American statesmen of the Revolutionary period, but especially those involved in the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
hustling (John Adams)
Hustling, in the sense of jostling or moving hurriedly — not in the sense of selling or of gambling — first appears in a 1760 diary entry of a twenty-something John Adams, long before the hustle and bustle of running a country became his concern.
mammoth (Thomas Jefferson)
By 1801, Jefferson, like most people who followed science at all, would have known of the extinct woolly mammoths that once roamed the plains, but he seems to have been the first to use the word mammoth as an adjective. He did so to refer to a 438-pound side of veal he had received as a gift.
neologize (Thomas Jefferson)
Thomas Jefferson perhaps deserves at least part of the blame for the annoying habit of constructing words like incentivize, automatize, and synergize — he did it early with neologize, his word for the creation of new words. He had a pretty sound argument, though, for a more malleable, expandable language:
The language of the old nobles of Great Britain “had no words which could have conveyed the ideas of oxygen, cotyledons, zoophytes, magnetism, electricity, hyaline, and thousands of others expressing ideas not then existing. . . . When an individual uses a new word, if ill-formed it is rejected in society, if well-formed, adopted, and, after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries.
He also wasn’t afraid to go as far as neologisation.
normalcy (Warren Harding)
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration . . .” The overriding concept of Warren G. Harding’s 1920 presidential bid was a yearning to return to the America, either real or imagined, that had existed before the recently ended World War I. Though normalcy already had some use in other areas, including mathematics, Harding’s use of the term gave it a more political and sentimental meaning. It also earned him a bit of mockery for not use a “proper” word.
And didn’t I tell you he had a thing for alliteration?
off-duty (George Washington)
It should come as no surprise that off-duty, describing times outside one’s regular duties, was coined by a military man. It surprised me, though, to learn that the term was apparently coined by George Washington, with its first appearance in his General Orders of March 1776.
pussyfooter (Theodore Roosevelt)
When Theodore Roosevelt first used this word, as far as the records show, it took the more literal meaning of someone who moves like a cat — quietly and stealthily. He didn’t make up the word, though; he certainly would have known the nickname of prohibitionist William “Pussyfoot” Johnson, but TR was the first to start using it more generally. Only later did the term pussyfoot take on the negative connotation of evasiveness and underhandedness.
For more great lexical fun with the presidents, find a copy of Paul Dickson’s Words from the White House at your local bookstore or library. Or, you know, Amazon.