Verbal Energy

Hail to the neologizers in chief

US presidents – and one president in particular – seem to have a knack for coining new terms.

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"Necessity obliges us to neologize."

It is with this observation from Thomas Jefferson that lexicographer Paul Dickson begins his latest book, "Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents."

"To neologize" is to coin new words, or, to stretch the meaning beyond whatever Jefferson or Mr. Dickson may have had in mind, to make it up as you go along, which might describe the whole American project, especially in the early days.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

"Neologize" is itself a neologism, a new word or expression, in this case a verb formed from a related noun. Dickson credits Jefferson with its coining. But it might be seen also as a metaphor for a kind of constitutional incrementalism, a building on what has gone before, as America's own Framers built on a tradition going back to Magna Carta.

As a new word not made up out of whole cloth but rather borrowed from French, "neologism," meaning "innovation in language," goes back to 1776. The first use of "a neologism" to refer to a specific newly coined word was in 1803. Both years were key in the life of the third US president.

No president, Dickson maintains, has coined more words than Jefferson. But all presidents have an opportunity to affect the national conversation, not only in what they talk about but in the actual words they use. In many instances in this book, a presidential letter or diary or memo book is cited as the first known use of a given term: "ottoman" (in the sense of footstool), "overdraught" (overdraft, as we spell it today), or even "pedicure" – all Jefferson.

Part of what's going on here is that if you become president of the United States, you tend to be the sort of person who writes a lot, both privately (letters, diaries) and publicly (State of the Union addresses); and what's more, people pay attention to what you say, even centuries later. Even the trivia of your life ends up in acid-free archival storage.

If Mr. Colonial Nobody had needed help trimming his toenails, his memorandum-to-self on the subject would not necessarily have made it into the Library of Congress.

Many of the phrases in Dickson's book are tied forever to certain moments in history: Franklin Roosevelt's characterization of Dec. 7, 1941, as a "day which will live in infamy," or more recently, Gerald Ford's assurance to the Watergate-weary American people as he assumed office, "Our long national nightmare is over." Some of the words Dickson tracks are in fact so tied to a moment that they don't mean much today: When was the last time you heard anyone or anything described as "vanburenish" – meaning "evasive in politics"?

Others have simply become part of our lexicon: frazzle, loose cannon, lunatic fringe, or muckraker (all Theodore Roosevelt).

Some terms with a relatively modern sound go way back: "Administration," which has a New Deal ring to my ear, was George Washington's word. Dickson traces "racial discrimination," which likewise has a 20th-century sound, back to President Johnson – Andrew Johnson, that is, Lincoln's successor.

One surprise in the book is that Dickson traces the phrase "Founding Fathers" to Warren Harding, who had a love of alliteration. Until he used the term in a speech in 1918, the general term was "the framers" or "the framers of the Constitution." But once Harding used the phrase, "Founding Fathers" seemed to have been always with us.

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