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Sun January 20, 2013
Author Interviews

Presidents Use Bully Pulpit To Shape American Language In 'Words'

The office of the president offers a lot of responsibilities and privileges. Your actions drive the world's most powerful military, billions of dollars worth of domestic policy and, perhaps most importantly, the way the country speaks.

That's what linguist and writer Paul Dickson contends in his new book, Words From the White House. It's a look back through history at the words and phrases popularized by our presidents — including the ones they don't get credit for anymore.

Teddy Roosevelt, for example, loved language, Dickson tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "He would create a word like 'mollycoddle,' for sort of somebody you would say was timid, and 'bully pulpit,' you know, the bully pulpit being the presidency itself." Presidents, Dickson says, have to be eloquent. "They have to be able to get up there and convince people."

Dickson says the most eloquent and convincing president was Thomas Jefferson. "To this day, in the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 114 terms which are laid at his feet — either pure coinages or him being the first to use it," he says. "And some of them are quite interesting."

Did you know that Jefferson was apparently the first to use the word "ottoman" to refer not to the empire, but to the footstool? And Dickson says words like "pedicure" and "lengthily" are also attributed to our third president — along with, appropriately enough, "neologize."

"He writes a letter to John Adams, who's another very good creator of language, ... and says, 'It's our obligation as Americans to neologize, to create a new language, which is the American language,' " Dickson says. That language would be full of Americanisms like "OK" and "slam dunk," which might be sneered at by a speaker of the King's English.

The new American language is curter and more direct. "You say mob instead of 'a large group of angry people.' That's Americanism," he says.

In the modern era, Dickson points to Harry Truman as a master of presidential language. "He brought back old folk terms like 'snallygaster,' and he had wonderful slogans like 'the buck stops here.' " One of the most interesting terms Truman brought back, Dickson says, was the word "trocar," which was an instrument farmers used in rural Missouri, where he was from, "when a bull or a cow had eaten too much clover and had amassed a huge amount of gas inside of them. ... They would use this instrument to allow the gas to come out through the proper orifice." There was, he adds, the occasional joke about a whistling noise sounding across the plains when farmers applied the trocar to their livestock.

"Truman actually, in a letter to one of his aides, said that he felt ... 'somebody should take a trocar to Congress and use it to deflate the egos,' " Dickson says. "I like Truman's stuff because he was a very plain-speaking man who used these rural things that were probably a great puzzlement to more urban people."

Speaking of plain-spoken, George W. Bush also makes an appearance in the book. Bush was known for scripted phrases like "Axis of Evil," but also spontaneous utterances like "embetter."

"I gave him the benefit of the doubt because everybody was howling and yelling and screaming ... 'embetter' was first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the same exact meaning that George Bush gave it, in 1583," Dickson says, though it has since dwindled into obscurity.

Likewise, the OED traces "resignate" all the way back to 1531. "One of the ones they really tried to nail him with was 'strategery,' " says Dickson. "Which of course was not Bush himself but was Saturday Night Live ... but 'misunderestimate,' which was one of the real howlers that a lot of people cited, is actually fairly useful."

Presidents need to be spontaneous, but also have a good understanding of the language in order to coin new words, Dickson says. "When Roosevelt first gave his fireside chats to coach the country out of the Depression, [he] made a very conscious decision to use the language of baseball, as opposed to the language of politics. ... The president, in order to be a really good communicator, has to realize that he can't talk to the people with the same metaphor they would talk to, you know, someone in his party hierarchy, that if he really wants to get to people, he's got to give them something they can latch onto."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are, of course, a lot responsibilities and privileges that come with being a monarch and president as well. The commander in chief leads the world's most powerful military, drives domestic policy and even how Americans talk.

That's what Paul Dickson, a linguist and a writer, says in his new book. It's called "Words from the White House." And it's a look back through history at the words and phrases that American presidents set in motion, including the ones they don't even get credit for anymore.

Paul Dickson joined us in our Washington studios to talk language, ahead of the upcoming inauguration. He began with Teddy Roosevelt and why he left such an imprint on our lexicon.

PAUL DICKSON: I think he loved language. I think if he saw that, you would create a word like mollycoddle for sort of as somebody who was you would say, you know, timid. And bully pulpit. You know, the bully pulpit mean the presidency itself. And language was just important to him. And I think a lot of them. I think one of the reasons they become president is they have to be eloquent. They have to be able to get up there and, you know, convince people.

MARTIN: Which presidents was the best at this?

DICKSON: Thomas Jefferson was absolutely the best. And to this day, in the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 114 terms which are laid at his feet; like ottoman - not the empire - but the footstool is Jefferson's. And pedicure, some of them which is, you know, having your...

MARTIN: Yeah, your toes done. Sure.

DICKSON: The lengthily is his. So...

MARTIN: And this was something that was a preoccupation of American leaders at the time, to create a specific language?

DICKSON: Right, and Jefferson himself creates the word neologize. This is one of his great creations, neologize meaning to create new words. I mean this literally. And he writes a letter to John Adams and he says: Our obligation as Americans to neologize, to create a new language, which is the American language. And in Jefferson's concept, it was composed of Americanisms which are those very words and phrases, like OK and slam-dunk, which a British speaker would say, well, that's an Americanism. That's not part of the King's English.

MARTIN: In a dismissive way, they would...

DICKSON: Yes or, depending on who they are, some British people are very admiring of that 'cause it's a more direct way of speaking. So you say mob instead of a large group of angry people, you know, that's Americanism.

MARTIN: Who else was really good at this? You talk about Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson, but what modern presidents was really good at coining phrases or just the one-offs?

DICKSON: I think Harry Truman was wonderful. He brought back old folk terms like snollygoster. And he had wonderful slogans like, you know, the buck stops here. One of the most interesting terms that Truman brought back was a Word trocard, T-R-O-C-A-R. A trocar was an instrument in rural Missouri, where he's from, which was an instrument that when a bull or a cow had eaten too much clover, and amassed a huge amount of gas inside of them, that they would use his instrument to allow the gas come out through the proper orifice.

(LAUGHTER)

DICKSON: And apparently there were some illusions in the old days when bulls and cows were trocared that there'd be a whistling across the plain. Well, Truman actually in a letter to one of his aides said that he felt that the Congress deserves somebody should take a trocar to Congress...

(LAUGHTER)

DICKSON: ...to use it to deflate the ego. Truman, I like Truman stuff because he's very plain-speaking man. He used the sort of rural things that were probably a great puzzlement to more urban people.

MARTIN: So, speaking of plainspoken, George W. Bush makes a few appearances in your book.

DICKSON: Yup. Yup.

MARTIN: And he is known not only for the very contrived, intentional phrase, something like axis of evil which appeared in the 2002 State of the Union address, but also he's well-known for creativity in language.

DICKSON: Right. Right, so embetter is one of his which is...

MARTIN: This is very interesting. I did not know embetter was word.

DICKSON: What I did was I gave him the benefit of the doubt because everybody was howling and yelling and screaming and...

MARTIN: We should say he got a lot of guff for apparently sometimes making up words.

DICKSON: Right. Right. Right. Embetter was first sighted in the Oxford English dictionary with the same exact meaning that George Bush gave it in 1583. Now, and it dwindled off into the obscurity.

MARTIN: What does embetter mean?

DICKSON: It just means to make better. I'll, you know...

MARTIN: Embolden?

DICKSON: Yeah, emboldened and better. By giving you some cash, I will embetter your chances of having a good lunch. Or and then, resignate was his sort of a cumbersome way - or it seemed to be - of saying resonate, resonate. And again, that goes back to 1531, according to the Oxford English dictionary.

One of the ones they really tried to nail was with strategery...

MARTIN: Strategery.

DICKSON: Strategery which, of course, was not Bush himself but was "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) In fact, we are almost out of time. So I will instead ask each candidate to sum up in a single word the best argument for his candidacy. Governor Bush.

WILL FARRELL, ACTOR: (as George W. Bush) Strategery.

MARTIN: So he didn't actually say strategery. This was Will Ferrell's treatment.

DICKSON: Right, but misunderestimate, which is one of the real howlers that a lot of people cited, is actually fairly useful. I mean there is a point in life - and usually dealing with somebody who's doing some work on your house - when you underestimate...

MARTIN: You get a misunderestimate.

(LAUGHTER)

DICKSON: So again, these things that to one generation are sort of funny and outlandish, to the next generation start to work.

MARTIN: What about our current president, President Obama? You've got him in the book being responsible for the phrase: shovel-ready. This is something that...

DICKSON: Yet it came with a TARP. Yeah, you came up with that. And he had that very strange business of what wee-weed up. Remember the first summer in office, he said in Washington and as the summer goes on everybody gets all wee-weed up, which was...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah.

DICKSON: ...in the context it meant sort of he was in a...

MARTIN: Someone up in a tizzy or something.

DICKSON: Tizzy or grouchy or something. But it was, in its context, it's sort of, huh, that people do get wee-weed up around here.

MARTIN: Do you need to be spontaneous to be a president who does this well?

DICKSON: Yeah. And you also have to understand the language. For example, when Roosevelt first gave his Fireside Chats to coach the country out of the Depression, Roosevelt made a very conscious decision to use the language of baseball as opposed to the language of politics. So he said: My box score with Congress is not as good as I'd like to be. We are trying to get to first base with this legislation. Those who oppose me on this are out in left field.

So the president, in order to be a really good communicator, has to realize that he can't talk to the people with the same metaphor they would talk to the, you know, somebody in his party hierarchy; that if he really wants to get to people, you've got to give them something they can latch onto...

MARTIN: You're talking to the people in language that will resonate with them.

DICKSON: Right. Right. Yeah, resignate.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That will resignate with them, exactly. Paul Dickson's book is called "Words from the White House." He joined us in our studio in Washington. Mr. Dickson, thanks for coming in.

DICKSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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