As author Paul Dickson notes in his book “Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents,” the country’s chief executives have shaped not only history, but our popular lexicon as well. Check out 10 everyday words and phrases from Dickson’s book that you may be surprised to learn were propelled into common usage by America’s commanders in chief.
1. Administration—George Washington
As the first U.S. president, George Washington not only defined the role of the chief executive, he also coined certain words to explain elements of the presidency such as the commander in chief’s period of time in office, which he called an “administration.” Washington introduced the new use of the word in his Farewell Address in 1796 when he wrote, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error.” The Oxford English Dictionary credits Washington with the first evidence of the usage of 32 words—including “average” and “indoors.” As Dickson notes, however, that doesn’t mean the first president coined the terms, only that his writings contained the earliest recorded instances of them, in part because his papers were among the few to survive from the 1700s.
2. First Lady—Zachary Taylor
In the early decades of the United States, the president’s wife was commonly referred to as the “presidentress”—quite a mouthful. Not until Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison in 1849 did that begin to change. “She will never be forgotten because she was truly our First Lady for a half-century,” the twelfth president wrote of the widow of the fourth president. The title eventually grew in usage to encompass all presidential wives.
3. Founding Fathers—Warren G. Harding
Today’s common collective reference to the Revolutionary-era statesmen who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution had an unlikely start in a 1918 speech given by then Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding to the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution in which he said, “It is good to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the Republic.” Harding, who had a penchant for alliteration, wielded the term again during his 1920 presidential campaign, and it soon supplanted the usage of “framers” to describe America’s Revolutionary leaders, which Dickson says changed the way we now view them. “The use of ‘framers’ connotes a much more diverse group, while ‘founding fathers’ sounds like they were this group of men walking in lockstep, and of course the reality is they had huge disagreements on voting, slavery and other issues.”
4. Iffy—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Although Franklin D. Roosevelt was a patrician with a very high-class way of speaking, Dickson notes that he wasn’t afraid to include slang in his linguistic arsenal, such as the use of the word “iffy” to describe uncertainties or Supreme Court decisions with which he disagreed. Roosevelt commonly swatted away hypothetical queries from reporters at press conferences by saying, “That’s an iffy question.”
5. Lunatic Fringe—Theodore Roosevelt
Dickson says that Theodore Roosevelt—whose contributions to the popular lexicon included “bully pulpit,” “muckraker,” “loose cannon” and “pack rat”—was the most masterful president at coining new phrases. “So many of his constructions are still around and still have his imprint on them. He just seems to have been the most colorful presidential contributor to the language,” Dickson says. After leaving the White House, Roosevelt added to his linguistic legacy when in his review of the avant-garde Armory Show in 1913 the unimpressed former president wrote, “The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.” The term soon crossed over from the art world to the political arena to characterize those with beliefs well outside the mainstream.
6. Mulligan—Dwight D. Eisenhower
America may have liked Ike, but not as much as Dwight D. Eisenhower loved golf. The duffer-in-chief even popularized a term now in common parlance on golf courses around the world. In 1947, the Washington Post reported that after hitting a wayward tee shot, Eisenhower invoked executive privilege to hit another ball without taking a penalty. “General Eisenhower got away from the first tee gracefully on his second shot, taking advantage of the rule of ‘Mulligans’ to smite one far down the middle after hooking his first shot into the trees,” the newspaper reported. Eisenhower’s do-overs became common practices during his White House days, and so did the use of “mulligan.”
7. Pedicure—Thomas Jefferson
No president coined more words than Thomas Jefferson. The Oxford English Dictionary credits America’s third president with the introduction of 110 new words including “belittle,” “mammoth” and, aptly, “neologize” (a word meaning the creation of new words). “Jefferson and his peers felt it was their duty to create a new language,” Dickson says. “They wanted to create an American identity that included a distinct national language.” As part of his work in forging a linguistic identity apart from the Queen’s English, Jefferson imported a number of French phrases from his years living in Paris, including the use of “pedicure” to describe the care of feet, toes and toenails.
8. Quixotic—John Adams
A voracious reader, John Adams in 1815 recalled the windmill-tilting protagonist of Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” in describing a Venezuelan revolutionary who hoped to unite all of Spanish America as “a Quixotic adventurer.” Dickson notes that there had been earlier uses of the word, but the second president’s reference helped to popularize it.
9. Squatter—James Madison
In a 1788 letter to Washington, James Madison delineated several factions who might be opposed to the newly drafted U.S. Constitution, including a group of representatives from Maine who occupied land owned by others and to which they had no legal title. “Many of them and their constituents are only squatters upon other people’s land, and they are afraid of being brought to account,” wrote Madison in the first recorded instance of the word “squatter.”
10. Sugarcoat—Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was capable of employing both soaring oratory and plain-spoken language. In a July 4, 1861, message to Congress, Lincoln used the latter to take aim at secessionists who claimed their actions were constitutional: “With rebellion thus sugar-coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government.” The official government printer objected to Lincoln that the use of “sugar-coated” was beneath the linguistic dignity of the presidency, but the Great Emancipator stood firm and reportedly said, “The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what sugar-coated means.”