From Iffy to Mulligan: Words American Presidents Made Famous

Well, someone had to start calling them the Founding Fathers

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We all remember George W. Bush’s verbal gems. Who could forget resignatedecider or misunderestimate? But he’s not the only wordsmith to have occupied the Oval Office: there are hundreds of words that were made famous by U.S. Presidents — including terms we use all the time (and are not embarrassed to say in front of college graduates). So many, in fact, that a dedicated language guru has made a book out of them.

In honor of President Obama’s upcoming second Inauguration, NewsFeed presents a special edition of Wednesday Words, featuring lesser-known stories of presidential coinage from Paul Dickson’s new book, Words from the White House. Here’s a taste of his compilation:

Founding Fathers (n.): a collective name for the statesmen of the Revolutionary period, especially members of the American Constitutional Convention of 1787. 

This was the term that inspired Dickson’s collection. The credit goes to Warren G. Harding, who coined it in 1918 and went on to feature in it his 1920 presidential campaign. Other Harding hits include bloviate and normalcy.

squatter (n.): someone who settles on land or property of which he or she has no legal title. 

Next time you’re deriding an old college roommate who has overstayed his welcome, give thanks to James Madison. The first recorded use of this word was in a 1788 letter from Madison to George Washington, discussing riffraff up in Maine who were squatting on other people’s property.

iffy (adj.): describing a question, proposal, prospect or decision that is full of ifs. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt invented this term in the 1930s, Dickson says, and used it throughout his administration. We use it to talk about fruit of uncertain age; he used it to dismiss questions at press conferences.

press the flesh (v., slang): to shake someone’s hand.  

Lyndon B. Johnson started using this “jive” slang at political rallies in the 1960s, Dickson says. One wonders if it sounded as unsettling back then as it would today if politicians went around talking about “flesh pressing.”

lunatic fringe (n.): a minority group of adherents to a political or other movement that is at odds with mainstream beliefs.

Teddy Roosevelt, whom Dickson calls the Neologist in Chief, coined this colorful phrase in 1913 when reviewing an art show. “In this recent art exhibition,” he wrote, “the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists.” Hey, former Presidents have got to fill their days somehow. Why not take a few shots at Picasso?

mulligan (n.): a golf custom employed to allow each player one “do-over” of a drive per round of golf; by extension, a second chance.

This is the factoid of all factoids for trivia-obsessed golfers. The word was made famous by Dwight Eisenhower after reporters covered a round he played in 1947 in which the President invoked the rule. If this didn’t factor into Ike’s induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, it should have.

sugarcoat (v.): to coat with sugar and thus make palatable. 

Abraham Lincoln sent a message to Congress that accused the Southerners of having “sugarcoated” their rebellion. An official government printer took umbrage at the undignified expression and asked Lincoln to change it for the record. But just as you’d have hoped he would, Dickson recounts, Lincoln refused and told the printer, “The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what sugarcoated means.”

Snowmageddon (n.): a nickname for the huge snowstorm that hit Washington, D.C., in 2010. 

Obama, Dickson says, “has yet to really make his mark” when it comes to White House words. But of the neologisms he’s popularized, this is Dickson’s favorite. Of course, we can still hope that the 44th President will come up with something a little more earth-moving in his remarks on Monday.

20 comments
mbrown
mbrown

People......this is a typical Jewish (liberal, Democrat) posting by Ms. Steinmetz...............She just HAD to get Obama in there somewhere, or she could not have slept at night.................must be a guilt complex for your people........who knows............I could not help but notice you did not include Reagan...(conservative and one of the bes Presidents this country was ever blessed to have!).......why not some quotes from him Ms. Steinmetz......?......because he had some hilarious comments that would have improved your slanted posting a bunch........you know why.....because Time requires you tow the liberal line........you writers and editors should be ashamed, but that would give you a negative "feeling" and we know that is more important than life itself......just my opinion.........

fhmadvocat
fhmadvocat

"There's no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons."  - Ronald Reagan, Governor of California, 1967.

"There you go again" - "Government won't solve the problem, government is the problem" -

mbrown
mbrown

Time and Cnn......you always have to get Obama somewhere in the mix to support his socialist agenda..........whether you remember or not....there are lots of other presidents to quote.........you liberal news agencies kill me with your butt kissing articles...........and you wonder why Time has lost subscribers (all time low) and CNN is losing the ratings battles............go figure !

MaeShirlie
MaeShirlie

President Obama's signature word is "clinging" as in "clinging to their guns and religion".  I loved that phrase.    He could also get credit for "spread the wealth"; that took off .  And of course the classic...:"you didn't build that!"  Mitt Romney, a presidential candidate can take to his grave, not a term but one number..47%.  Romney will never get credit for it because he will never be President of the United States.  And in the words of Rachel Maddow, we had a choice to do that and we said..NO.

mbrown
mbrown

Mae,

When the govt comes and takes your property.....get back with us about how wonderful Obama is..........guns are the only thing that seperates us from being a monarchy...........may I suggest you read the Constitution....oh thats right liberals act on "feelings" not common sense............did you notice in your paycheck the last couple of weeks you make less? (if you even work).....you can thank who you voted for, for that reduction in pay to ....yes.....wait.......pay for Obamacare.......where is that peach of a truth in the media?.........guess what...you will never see it.........nuff said......

MaeShirlie
MaeShirlie like.author.displayName 1 Like

You may want to check in to some of that Obamacare mental health. 

grape_crush
grape_crush

Thanks for this, Katy. Etymology is (to me, anyway) fun and informative.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord like.author.displayName 1 Like

"Abraham Lincoln sent a message to Congress that accused the Southerners of having “sugar-coated” their rebellion."

And they still do it to this day

bjs23
bjs23

Strategery....

This comment has been deleted

kbrawn
kbrawn

And that's related to this story how?

SuperDave
SuperDave

Sounds like a commercial! Or a scam.

KayleeCarstens
KayleeCarstens like.author.displayName 1 Like

Personally I liked VP Biden's use of the word malarkey, but perhaps a better choice when speaking to his opponents would have been balderdash; after all it contains a "B" and an "S"!

radiofox
radiofox

When I saw the headline, the first word that came to mind was "malaise." Then I recalled that Carter never said it; however he did popularize it, as the press used the word over and over. 

quarrelladevil
quarrelladevil

What about Warren G. Harding's talking about a return to "normalcy" when he meant "normality?"

kbrawn
kbrawn

That's mentioned in the definition of founding fathers.

joevtoo
joevtoo like.author.displayName 1 Like

deconstructiva--hate to break the news to you, but there isn't a single politician who is aligned with anyone's interests but his/her own.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@joevtoo 

Gah, I want an edit button

Also, Deconstravia's point is not in conflict with yours.  Someone who's a corporate person, was supported by corporate people, and speaks like a corporate person is going to have interests that are more closely aligned with corporate people than middle class people.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@joevtoo I don't believe the number is zero.....but I agree the number isn't particularly high.

(Also, there is a question of whether a politician feels they are free to do the right thing after their own interests have been met)

deconstructiva
deconstructiva like.author.displayName 1 Like

Thanks, Katy, another insightful post, as always. Truman was famous for many colorful words. Alas, most of them are too pottymouthed to pass moderation. The last thing I want from political leaders is corporate-speak. Those who talk like corporations might be too cozy with them and aligned with their interests instead of ours.