Books: “Words from the White House”

March 20, 2013



When we were watching episodes of Downton Abbey on a DVD, we turned on the English subtitles, because we had trouble understanding a couple of the actors — particularly Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow and Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason.
It turned out that while some of our difficulty with the dialogue had to do with the one actor’s mumbling and the other one’s accent, some of it also had to do with the vocabulary itself — British terms that we did not know.

  Most of us are familiar with terms like “lorry,” “loo,” and “lift,” but we saw others in the captions that we had never heard before.
It was to be expected that the English used in Britain and the English used in the United States would evolve differently, but I learned recently that that didn’t happen only over time but was done deliberately, on our side of the ocean, soon after the American Revolution.
That’s what Paul Dickson reports in his book Words from the White House, which is a compilation of words and phrases that either were either coined or made popular by presidents and other prominent Americans.

  According to Dickson, an 18th century sentiment shared by Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, was that Americans had to craft for themselves a language that was distinct from the “king’s English.”
Webster was so confident that this goal could be achieved that he wrote in 1806 that “In fifty years from this time, the American-English will be spoken by more people than all the other dialects of the language.”



Part of the process by which language evolves is “neologizing” — that is, inventing words or phrases from whole cloth.
Dickson writes that the word “neologize” was itself neologized by Jefferson in 1813 in a letter to John Adams.
So Theodore Roosevelt, who — for my money — is disproportionately represented in this book, was neologizing when he invented the term “pussyfooter,” and his distant cousin FDR was doing the same when he created the useful word “iffy.”
Some presidents have been accused of using non-standard terms, not because they were being inventive but because they didn’t know any better.
In this regard, for instance, Dickson mentions Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush.
Harding has often been ridiculed for his 1920 campaign promise of a “return to normalcy,” but Dickson points out that the word “normalcy” had been already in use in several fields, including mathematics.
Harding’s innovation was to give the term a political meaning — and, the author reminds us, it worked.



The second Bush — who could be hard on English — was kidded mercilessly for his used of the term “decider” which he applied to himself when the press asked him about calls for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”) Dickson gives Bush credit for coining this word, but apparently the author didn’t check a dictionary: that word was around before George Bush was president, meaning exactly what he used it to mean.


2 Responses to “Books: “Words from the White House””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Interesting to hear American English itself spoken of as a “dialect”. As for George Bush, I never hear him mentioned in the context of language without remembering Molly Ivin’s famous, dismissive nickname for him: “Shrub”.

    Another rich source for neologizing these days is social media. If I could wave a magic wand and say “Begone!” I’d surely do it for POTUS, FLOTUS and SCOTUS. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with them as abbreviations, but they’re increasingly being used in conversation. I don’t approve. 😉

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I agree. While I understand that language evolves just as everything in nature does, I’m conservative about change. I have read recently, for example, that some authorities are beginning to accept as standard the common warped use of adverbs, as in, “Hopefully, the storm will not last past noon.” I’m not ready to buy into that. I have known SCOTUS for many years as the Associated Press prefix to slug lines on stories about the U.S. Supreme Court: SCOTUS-CAMPAIGN FINANCING, SCOTUS-GAY MARRIAGE, etc. That’s the only way want to see the term, and I don’t ever want to HEAR it!

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