- US presidents have had a major impact on the English language.
- Presidents from George Washington to Donald Trump have helped introduce words into our speech.
- Some of the words presidents helped popularise include “mulligan,” “sugarcoat,” and even “OK.”
For as long as the United States has existed, Americans have paid close attention to what the president says.
So it’s no surprise that presidents have had a huge impact on the English language itself.
Presidents are responsible for introducing millions of Americans to words that we now consider ordinary. Thomas Jefferson, for example, is responsible for bringing the word “pedicure” over from France, while Abraham Lincoln gifted us with “sugarcoat.”
Meanwhile, the ubiquitous word “OK” has a lengthy history closely intertwined with our eighth president, Martin Van Buren.
Read on to discover the presidential origins of 13 common words we use today.
Iffy — Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt began using the word “iffy” early in his presidency, and by virtually all accounts, he was the first known person to have used it.
That’s according to Paul Dickson, the author of “Words from the White House,” which tracked the influence US presidents have had on the English language.
Defined as “having many uncertain or unknown qualities or conditions,” iffy was apparently a go-to word for Roosevelt when dismissing hypothetical questions from the press, like when he’d say, “that’s an iffy question.”
Mulligan — Dwight Eisenhower
Before Dwight Eisenhower came around, the word “mulligan” was rarely heard outside the golf course.
But according to Dickson, Eisenhower – an avid golfer – introduced the word to the masses in 1947 when he requested a mulligan in a round of golf that was being covered by reporters.
A mulligan is an extra stroke awarded after a bad shot, and it wouldn’t be the last time Eisenhower was awarded one. In 1963, the former president was granted a mulligan as he was dedicating a golf course at the Air Force Academy, after his ceremonial first drive went straight up into the air.
Founding fathers — Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding is usually ranked among the worst American presidents, but he succeeded in popularising a phrase that has become a staple of our political discourse.
The most famous instance came in 1918 when Harding, then an Ohio senator, said in a speech that “It is good to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the Republic.”
Before Harding, America’s pioneers were typically known as the “framers.” But Harding’s punchy alliteration soon became the standard for decades to come.
Pedicure — Thomas Jefferson
Perhaps no president has contributed more words to the English language than Thomas Jefferson.
One of his most widely-used contributions is the word “pedicure,” which he picked up during his years living in Paris. The earliest use of the word in English dates back to 1784, according to Merriam-Webster.
Sugarcoat — Abraham Lincoln
Not only did Abraham Lincoln pioneer the use of “sugarcoat” in the sense of making something bad seem more attractive or pleasant, but he stirred up a minor controversy with the word, too.
In 1861, four months after he was inaugurated, Lincoln wrote a letter to Congress as Southern states were threatening to secede from the Union.
“With rebellion thus sugar-coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than 30 years, until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government,” Lincoln wrote, according to Dickson.
John Defrees, in charge of government printing, was so incensed by Lincoln’s folksy verbiage that he admonished the president, telling him, “you have used an undignified expression in the message.”
But Lincoln insisted on using the word “sugarcoat,” and he got the last laugh: “That word expresses precisely my idea, and I am not going to change it,” he responded. “The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what ‘sugar-coated’ means.”
Administration — George Washington
George Washington set the standard for all US presidents to come, and one major impact he had was establishing the language of the presidency.
Although the word “administration” has been around since the 14th century, it was Washington who first used the word to refer to a leader’s time in office. According to History.com, Washington’s first use of the word came in his 1796 farewell address when he said, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error.”
Normalcy — Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding makes another appearance on this list for popularising the word “normalcy,” the state of being normal.
Harding dropped the word in his famous “Return to Normalcy” speech, delivered as a candidate in the 1920 election in the wake of World War I.
Critics immediately pounced on the senator for using the word instead of the more popular “normality.” The Daily Chronicle of London even wrote that “Mr. Harding is accustomed to take desperate ventures in the coinage of new word,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper.
What the critics didn’t know is that “normalcy” was a perfectly valid English word dating back to 1857, less than a decade after the debut of “normality,” according to linguist Ben Zimmer. But ever since 1920, the word has been indelibly linked to Harding.
Squatter — James Madison
A squatter is someone who occupies land or property without holding a legal claim to it.
That’s what James Madison, our fourth president, accused people from Maine of doing in a 1788 letter to George Washington – the first known usage of the term.
In the letter, Madison was warning Washington of various groups that might be opposed to ratifying the Constitution. One of those groups, he said, was the representatives from Maine, who he accused of setting up houses and farms without proper authorization.
“Many of them and their constituents are only squatters upon other people’s land, and they are afraid of being brought to account,” Madison wrote.
In their book “America in So Many Words,” English professor Allen Metcalf and lexicographer David K. Barnhart wrote of Madison’s coinage: “To say the least,squatter was an undignified word, chosen presumably to express disapproval of the practice.
First lady — Zachary Taylor
For a long time, Americans didn’t have a specific term to refer to the spouse of the president. Martha Washington, for example, went by Lady Washington, while Julia Tyler preferred “Mrs. Presidentress.”
According to some accounts, it was our 12th president, Zachary Taylor, who brought the term “first lady” into common usage in 1849. Taylor, speaking at the funeral of Dolley Madison, supposedly called Madison “truly the first lady,” although no records of his eulogy exist today.
Regardless of its origins, the term began to catch on 11 years later, in 1860. The president at the time, James Buchanan, was a bachelor, and people were looking for an official-sounding way to address his niece Harriet Lane, who often acted as hostess during Buchanan’s presidency. “First lady of the land” was what publisher Frank Leslie came up with, and eventually, the term stuck.
OK — Martin Van Buren
The word “OK” has a rich history, and eighth president Martin Van Buren played a major role in its lasting popularity.
There are a few explanations as to how “OK” came about, but the most popular one pegs it to an 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post. That OK stood for “oll korrect,” as in, “all correct” – apparently, it was a popular fad among educated elites to deliberately misspell abbreviations. Other jokey abbreviations of the era included NC for “nuff ced” and KG for “know go.”
By the end of the year, OK was slowly making its way into the American vernacular, when Van Buren incorporated it into his 1840 election campaign. A native of Kinderhook, New York, Van Buren’s nickname was Old Kinderhook, and as History.com explained, “OK”became a rallying cry among his supporters.
That election gave OK all the exposure it needed, and the word was cemented into our speech ever since.
Belittle — Thomas Jefferson
We can thank America’s third president for introducing us to the word “belittle,” meaning to make someone or something seem unimportant.
The earliest use of the word researchers have found was a 1781 writing of Jefferson’s in which he said of his home state Virginia, “The Count de Buffon believes that nature belittles her productions on this side of the Atlantic.”
Americans picked up on Jefferson’s coinage in the coming years, and Noah Webster eventually included it in his first dictionary in 1806.
Bloviate — Warren G. Harding
Somehow, one of America’s least-heralded presidents managed to popularise yet another word that is commonly used today: “bloviate.”
To bloviate is to speak pompously and long-windedly, something Harding readily acknowledged he did frequently. The president once described bloviation as “the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants, and saying nothing.”
While bloviate sounds like it could come from Latin, it’s actually just a clever coinage playing on the “blow” in words like “blowhard.” And although Harding didn’t coin it himself, he likely picked it up as a boy growing up in Ohio, where the word was most frequently used in the late 1800s.
Just like in the case of “normalcy,” Harding came under plenty of fire from language purists when he made use of “bloviate,” but most people wouldn’t bat an eye at it today.
Fake news — Donald Trump
Fake news has been around as long as the news itself. But ever since Donald Trump took office, the term has experienced a shift in meaning.
While fake news traditionally refers to disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news, Trump’s repeated use of the term has given way to a new definition: “actual news that is claimed to be untrue.”
Trump’s reimagining of fake news became so widespread in his first year as president that the American Dialect Society declared it the Word of the Year in 2017.
“When President Trump latched on to ‘fake news’ early in 2017, he often used it as a rhetorical bludgeon to disparage any news report that he happened to disagree with,” Ben Zimmer, chair of the group’s New Words Committee, said at the time.
“That obscured the earlier use of ‘fake news’ for misinformation or disinformation spread online, as was seen on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign,” he said. “Trump’s version of ‘fake news’ became a catchphrase among the president’s supporters, seeking to expose biases in mainstream media.”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.