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.