Surprising words and phrases invented by the presidents of the United States


When America’s leaders can’t think of the perfect word for certain situations, they sometimes make one. And these new words are often recorded in history.

From “Crazy Fringe” (Teddy Roosevelt) and “Inconvenient” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
To “Snowmageddon” (Barack Obama) and “bigly” (Donald Trump), the terminology coined by US presidents is as unique as the American experience.

“We really create our own institutions through language,” says Paul Dixon, author of Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents. “So, when John Quincy Adams coined the word ‘gag rule,’ or someone created another word that goes with what we do, once you have a word for it, it becomes a reality.”

Thomas Jefferson is said to have invented more than a hundred words, including “endorsement” [act of proving the accuracy or legitimacy of something] and “English obsession” [an excessive fondness for all things English].

The words “move” and “relocate” were coined by Abraham Lincoln, the term “house divided” in reference to the Civil War, and, according to the New York Times, “awesome.” [nice, good].

Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt added many memorable words and phrases to the American English language.

“Teddy Roosevelt made up this slang,” Dixon says. “Rat pack,” “mollycoddle,” “loser,” “high-net-worth criminals,” “loose cannon,” “mad fringe,” “pulpit bully,” and “lecher.” “and so on.”

It is believed that Woodrow Wilson was the first to use the slogan “America First” in 1915. He was also criticized for being the first president to drop the word “the” before “Congress.” Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, credits the term “Founding Fathers” to describe the framers of the Constitution. Harding also originated the words “Normality” and “The Bulge”. [to speak bombastically or grandiosely].

Before Calvin Coolidge, no political activist had ever described themselves as a “law and order” candidate. Harry Truman coined the phrase “Congress does nothing” and the saying: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Lyndon Johnson was the first to call the handshake a “press on the body.”

New words filled a lot of blank spaces, when in 1934 the sitting president decided his annual report to Congress needed a more appropriate name.

“It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who changed the name ‘Report to Congress’ to ‘State of the Union,’ and that was a much better description of what was going on than ‘Report to Congress,'” Dixon says.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (left) and Dwight Eisenhower

Franklin D. Roosevelt (left) and Dwight Eisenhower

The creation of new words infuriated critics who felt that presidents should stick to proper English, much as Franklin Roosevelt first used the word “questionable.”

“He said, ‘Well, it’s highly questionable as to the Supreme Court’s position on the matter,'” Dixon said, and that made headlines: “Roosevelt coined the word ‘questionable’!” “

The Oxford English Dictionary also cites FDR as being the first to use the word “cheerleader” [a person who leads the cheering at a sporting or special event].

Eisenhower was admired for coining the term “military industrial complex” in 1961, to warn of the powerful alliance of the military, government, and private corporations. But he was criticized for saying another word in a speech.

“He used the word ‘finish’ — taking the word ‘final’ and turning it into a verb — and there was a huge outcry. There were editorials in the major newspapers that the president shouldn’t use a word like finalize. It just wasn’t like that,” Dixon says.

Critics called it “non-existent”, “hideous”, “awful”, and “senseless”.

Lyndon Johnson

Lyndon Johnson

Necessity, Dixon says, is why presidents keep coming up with new words.

“They come in when they need to…to deal with the times, to deal with what was going on, whether it was the Great Depression or whether it was World War II, or whether it was a change in fashion or politics,” he says. “president [Richard] Nixon came up with the word “solid majority,” or President Obama’s talk of some project that was “ready for the scoops,” which he hadn’t heard of before, meaning they could immediately start working on the project.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, is remembered for calling himself “The Decider.” [person who makes the final call] use of the word “misunderstand” [to seriously underestimate.]

While the presidential expressions that have entered the American lexicon are hugely diverse, there may be one feature that presidents have in common.

A number of them showed great intelligence. This is what they share. They weren’t just smart. They were smart. Dixon says. “Often they have to think on their feet, and when they’re thinking on their feet, sometimes there isn’t a word there to say what they mean. And they just make one up.”

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