In a slight departure from normalcy, the premise of this article may sound a little iffy, but we certainly don’t want to encourage a bunch of muckrakers or squatters by sugarcoating or belittling any of the founding fathers or their administrations.
Did you notice anything about the prior sentence? No, we’re not referring to the general principle that one shouldn’t have a one-sentence paragraph. There is something particularly presidential about the way this article began. It would not have been possible without several of the nation’s chief executives, who coined or popularized most of the significant words of that sentence.
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who introduced “iffy” to the English language. The President was famously imprecise in his answers at press conferences, not wanting to rule out any of his options. He responded to reporters’ hypothetical questions by calling them “iffy.”
“Normalcy” and “Founding Fathers”
Before entering politics, Warren G. Harding worked at a newspaper. Despite the importance of good grammar in such a profession, Harding played fast and loose with it. It prompted H.L. Mencken to say that Harding’s English was the worst he ever heard. William Gibbs McAdoo called Harding’s speeches “an army of pompous phrases moving across the landscape in search of an idea.”
Despite this and, in fact, because of his loose regard for formalism in his communication, Harding’s administration is remembered by his campaign slogan in 1920: “A Return to Normalcy.”
Before his nomination, Warren G. Harding declared, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality….”
“Normalcy” was rarely used before the 1920 campaign. The preferred word is “normality.” The Oxford English Dictionary identifies “normalcy” as being “chiefly U.S.” in its usage. In support of this, it offers two citations. The first is to Harding’s speech, “not nostrums, but normalcy.” The second is a 1929 tract from the Society for Pure English, that says, “If…‘normalcy’ is ever to become an accepted word it will presumably be because the late President Harding did not know any better.”
Harding was also responsible for another expression — this one viewed with much more esteem. In 1916, then-Senator Harding spoke at the Republican National Convention and referred to the patriots who established the United States as the “Founding Fathers.” He used the phrase again in his inaugural address in 1921. It caught on. Until that point, the signers of the Declaration of Independence and leaders of the American Revolution were known as the “framers” or the “fathers.”
A word as sweet-sounding as “sugarcoat” would seem to have its origins in something innocent and charming, such as a nursery rhyme or children’s song. Ironically, it arose in the context of the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history.
Abraham Lincoln wrote to Congress in July 1861. He addressed the building crisis of state secession and wrote, “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.”
John Defrees, tasked with printing the President’s message, was incensed by what he considered to be folksy lingo in such an official communication He told Lincoln, “you have used an undignified expression in the message.”
Lincoln would not be dissuaded. He said, “That word expresses precisely my idea, and I am not going to change it. The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what ‘sugarcoated’ means.”
The true origins of the word “OK” are obscured in the annals of history. The most popular seems to trace it to an 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post, stating that “OK” was an abbreviation of “oll korrect.” A popular fad of the day was to intentionally misspell words and their subsequent abbreviations. Other such examples include “NC” for “nuff ced,” and “KG” for “know go.”
It was the election of 1840, however, that made “OK” popular enough that it lives yet today, leaving “NC” and “KG” as distant memories. That was the year Martin Van Buren successfully ran for the presidency. His nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” out of deference to his hometown, Kinderhook, New York. “OK,” as a shorted form of Van Buren’s nickname, became a rallying cry for his supporters.
“Belittle,” “Pedicure,” “Monotonously,” “Lengthily,” and Lots More
No list of contributions to any area of culture would be complete with mentioning Thomas Jefferson. This talented man was describing the beauty of his home state, Virginia, in a 1788 letter. He found available words inadequate to express his thoughts, so he created a new word. He wrote, “The Count de Buffon believes that nature belittles her productions on this side of the Atlantic.”
With that stroke of the pen, “belittle” entered the English vocabulary.
Jefferson did not end there. All told, he contributed more than 100 words to the lexicon, including pedicure, electioneering, lengthily, monotonously, and indecipherable.
For the first 11 administrations, the wife of the president had no agreed-upon title. Martha Washington was commonly known as “Lady Washington.” That changed in 1849 when Zachary Taylor spoke at the funeral for Dolley Madison.
Madison was the widow of the nation’s fourth president, James Madison. Taylor eulogized her, calling her “truly the first lady.” The title started to be used at that point.
It wasn’t until 11 years later that the title caught on for good. Ironically, it was during the administration of the only president who never married. In 1860, James Buchanan’s niece, Harriet Lane, was serving as the official White House hostess. To avoid awkwardness in addressing a hostess who was not the president’s wife, presidential advisors sought a formal title. Taking a page from Taylor’s reference to Dolley Madison, Lane was given the title “First Lady.” It has remained to this day.
We tend to think of homeless people or hippies taking over empty properties through “squatting” as a modern problem. It was James Madison, however, who gave the problem its name. In a 1788 letter to George Washington, the president referred to homeless Maine residents as “squatters” because they were occupying other people’s property without permission.
Prior to the Eisenhower administration, few people outside of the golfing community ever heard the word “mulligan.” The word describes the privilege of forgetting about a bad drive of the ball and taking another try, without penalty.
In 1947, Eisenhower, who had worldwide fame as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II, was playing a game that was covered by reporters. He requested a mulligan. The request —and the meaning of the word — was duly reported in newspapers around the world. From this point forward, it was used not only in golf but in any situation where a “do-over” was needed.
The years in which a president holds office are known as the administration of that president. It is because of the first president that we use that term.
In George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, he wrote, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error.” The word itself existed before this, but Washington was the one who first used it to refer to a president’s tenure.
The word “muckrake” appears in the book Pilgrim’s Progress, but there it is used in the literal sense. It was Roosevelt who popularized the word to describe digging into the muck of gossip.