President Obama is now hard at work carving out his legacy — his heart set on being remembered for decisive action on health care, gun control, immigration and equal rights. But there’s one arena where No. 44 has to pick up his game. So far, according to lexicographer Paul Dickson, Obama’s impact on our language has largely amounted to passing on to the American people the phrase “wee-weed up.” Speaking at a national health-care forum in the summer of 2009, Obama dropped the rather coarse neologism to describe the riled-up mood in Washington: “There’s something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up. I don’t know what it is. But that’s what happens.”
Not much of a linguistic legacy, so far.
As Dickson shows in his thoroughly enjoyable new book, “Words From the White House,” presidents have had an amusing and influential impact on our language. In creating a new nation, the founding fathers were also busy creating a new language, with Thomas Jefferson having a hand in more than 100 additions to American English. “I am a friend to neology,” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1820. “It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.” One of Jefferson’s most vivid creations — a simple compounding of ideas — is “circumambulator” (one whol walks around), which he used in describing explorer John Ledyard, who wanted to be “the first circumambulator of the earth.”
Thumbing through this compact lexicon turns up some real treats. We discover that the hoary-sounding term “founding fathers” isn’t of colonial vintage at all. It wasn’t until 1918 that the phrase entered the language, when Warren G. Harding, then a senator from Ohio, used it in remarks to the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution: “It is good to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the Republic.” He pulled out the phrase again later that year, adding a twist that has stayed with us to this day. Complaining that President Woodrow Wilson was inappropriately assuming powers for himself in post-World War I planning, Harding insisted that Congress should take the lead. “That was,” Harding said, opening the linguistic floodgates for generations to come, “the intent of the founding fathers.” Before Harding, the men who gave birth to America were known as the “framers” or “the framers of the Constitution.”
The presidents’ words serve as escorts through history, reflecting the character and times of the men who uttered them. Abraham Lincoln famously defined his era in a phrase when, addressing the issue of slavery, he told the Republican state convention in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” That powerful rhetoric, Dickson reminds us, is only partly Lincoln’s, for the original phrasing is found in the Gospel of Mark: “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”Theodore Roosevelt was characteristically rambunctious in dashing off colorful phrases; for example: “lunatic fringe,” which he created to describe cubists and other artists with works on display at a controversial 1913 exhibit in New York.
Some presidential phrases show that the arc of American history is sometimes just a monotonous straight line. Back in 1948, President Harry Truman, highlighting the inaction of Congress, forced the chamber into a special session during the summer and minted a verbal slap for the delinquent body: the “do-nothing Congress,” which sounds as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines.
Richard Nixon’s troubled presidency left its stains on the language with phrases that bring that era forcefully back to life. John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, revealed the inner workings of the administration when he testified before the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and introduced the term “enemies list.” Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who was ordered to take “the rough stuff” out when transcribing the White House tapes, made liberal use of the linguistic equivalent of White-Out: the term “expletive deleted.”
The phrases are arranged alphabetically, with an index of proper names at the back. Some are so much a part of our everyday parlance that it’s an aha moment to realize that a president actually thought them up. Take the term “first lady.” Isn’t this how we’ve always described the president’s wife? Each one may have been regarded as a first lady, but the term didn’t arrive until Zachary Taylor, the 12th president, reputedly used it in 1849 while eulogizing the wife of the fourth president, James Madison. Taylor is believed to have said of Dolley Madison, who died at age 81: “She will never be forgotten because she was truly our first lady for half a century.”
As the Obama adminstration and its opponents gear up to wrangle over a range of constitutional questions, it isn’t hard to imagine that one Jeffersonian creation that has dropped out of currency may find its way back in. Jefferson was far from happy with the interpretations of the Constitution rendered by Chief Justice John Marshall. Witheringly, he deemed them “twistifications.”
WORDS FROM THE WHITE HOUSE
Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents
By Paul Dickson
Walker. 197 pp. $18