In the Words of the Presidents

By Dickson, Paul | The Saturday Evening Post, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

In the Words of the Presidents


Dickson, Paul, The Saturday Evening Post


In 1608, one year after the establishment of Jamestown, Captain John Smith attempted to transcribe the Algonquian word meaning "he scratches with his hands" by writing down rahougcum. This led to the word raccoon, and one of the earliest seeds for American English was sown. More than three centuries later, in 1951, Mitford M. Mathews of the University of Chicago Press published A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, which contained 50,000 American words and phrases along with their definitions and extensive notations on their origins. These included words adopted from native tongues, such as skunk, squash, and pawpaw, as well as words from other languages - cafeteria from Spanish, sleigh and coleslaw from the Dutch. Other words were concocted from what Mathews called "the old lumber" of British English: bullfrog, rocking chair, and catfish, as well as thousands of words and phrases straight out of the American experience, from which we learned to play ball, eat crow, bark up the wrong tree, and paddle one's own canoe.

When one browses through this work and the earlier Dictionary of American English, which Mathews worked on with the British lexicographer Sir William Craigie, one is taken with the number of words and phrases that were coined, first recorded, or made popular by the nation's presi dents, beginning with George Washington.

Indeed, the largest number of White House words have been handed down from the founding fathers a term created by Warren G. Harding for his "front porch campaign" of 1920. Thomas Jefferson alone gets credit for more than 100 new words - among those that survive are lengthily, belittle, electioneering, Indecipherable, monotonously, ottoman (the footstool, not the empire), pedicure, the noun bid, and, appropriately, the verb neologize.

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 Jef ferson wrote to John Adams in 1820. "It is the only way tc give to a language copiousness and euphony." And the earl} presidents had Noah Webster and his followers at hand tc legitimize their brave new words.

Jefferson and others of his time felt that Americans were more tolerant of innovation in speech and writing than those in England and thought that American innovations woulc eventually justify calling the language of America by a nam* other than English.

Many on both sides of the Atlantic were alarmed that Americans were adding words to "their" language. As Mathew; pointed out in a later work called American Words, "Thej thought the English language belonged to those who lived ir Great Britain and that Americans should show their appreciation ofbeing allowed to use it by not making any changes to it.'

Webster considered this notion foolish and plunged inte the task of creating a dictionary of the American language He announced on the Fourth of July 1800, "New circumstances, new modes of life, new ideas of various kinds, give rise to new words and have already made many materia differences between the language of England and America." When the first edition of Noah Webster's dictionary appeared in 1806, one critic was outraged when he came upor two words that had never appeared before in a dictionary president ialnndcongressional. These wordsweredenouncec as "barbarous," and he said that they were "unnecessary and offensive to the ear."

Some - if not most - of these early presidential terms were not pure coinages but words that a president was the first to leave in a written record. Others were created by aides and associates and passed along to the president. Yet even this is fascinating - how, for example, did it come to be that the first written record of the onomatopoetic word bobolink was by John Adams, or that nobody before James Madison had used the word squatter to mean someone occupying property or territory that was not his or her own? …

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