Wednesday Words: The State of the (Mormon) Union and More

NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of our vocabulary includes useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue).

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David McGlynn

State of the Union vocab: Skutnik

No, it’s not a Russian satellite. A Skutnik is an average American who is invited by the President to be a guest at the State of the Union (or other joint session of Congress), often after doing something heroic. The eponymous hero was a man named Lenny Skutnik. A plane had crashed in the Potomac on Jan 13, 1982. While walking home from work, Skutnik passed the site and dove into icy waters to save a woman while others looked on. Ronald Reagan extended an invite to that exemplary human being in 1982, and Skutniks have been a feature at the SOTU ever since.

In 2011, for example, Barack Obama invited Daniel Hernandez, the intern who stanched Rep. Gabby Giffords head wound after she was shot last January. This year, many of his guests were more political. There was a young man with cancer who could afford treatment because of Obama’s health care reform. There was a General Motors plant manager, a symbol of a job that the auto bailout saved. Most famously, there sat billionaire Warren Buffett’s secretary, whose crowning achievement was having a higher tax rate than her boss (and being prime fodder for political metaphor).

(PHOTOS: 30 Years of Skutniks: Special Guests at the State of the Union)

Presidential parlance: the bully pulpit

Last night, Obama was using his bully pulpit, a term the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.” The first person to use this term was good old Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy is said to have spun round in his swivel chair about a century ago and said, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” A pulpit, of course, is a platform from which a preacher delivers a sermon. And back in the day, bully meant first-rate, tops or capital (as in “Capital, my good chap!”). In today’s tongue, we might translate this as “the badass pulpit.”

Culinary category of the week: “Mormon food”

On the front page of the New York Times dining section today, there is a story about Mormon cuisine, which reporter Julia Moskin describes as “part of a larger Western tradition of hearty meals, seasonal eating and food preservation that is in keeping with modern farm-to-table ideals.” This highfalutin definition is meant to contrast with the stereotype that Mormon fare is all Jell-O, casseroles and mashed/creamed insert-food-here. One might note that many other groups, from Methodists to Midwesterners, also enjoy these dishes (and then need to take naps) at perennial events. On a side note: Aunt Linda, please keep those twice-baked potatoes coming.

Latter-day dish: funeral potatoes

A famous part of Latter-day Saints fare is “funeral potatoes,” a cheesy, creamy potato casserole traditionally cooked for grieved families after a loved on has died (because nothing says “I’m sorry” like starch), though they can easily be “party potatoes” or “holiday potatoes,” too. In the Times article, the author describes an updated version that the younger generation of Mormons is using. It has Gruyère in addition to the traditional cheddar but uses most of the same ingredients. Hey, no one said change was easy—and churchin’ up the cheese is a good first step.

Conservative style: the missionary haircut

Since we’re already on the subject of Mormons, it seems appropriate to give a shout out to their signature look. The “missionary haircut” demands that hair be short, combed and parted on one side. When one attends the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, one has to “report” with this haircut and the proper missionary attire, traditionally a white, short-sleeved button-up, slacks and tie. It might not be a thrilling look, but Walt Disney would certainly approve. (See next entry.)

Magical facial hair category: Disney beard

There is a certain dress code that “Cast Members” who work at theme parks, costumed and non-costumed, must abide by. Walt’s soldiers shall be clean-cut and neat (or they may be forced off the Jolly Roger with their pink slip). Things that have been banned include big earrings, red fingernail polish, bright eye shadow and two-toned hair. The allowance of bare arms made big news last year, and this week the kingdom relaxed another regulation, allowing men to have mustaches, beards and goatees that are “fully grown in, neatly groomed and well-maintained at no longer than a quarter of an inch in length.” The news came as a cruel taunt to Cast Members whose facial hair grows in all patchy.

(MORE: Disney Allows Theme-Park Employees to Grow Beards and Goatees)