Carrie Callaghan interviews Paul Dickson, author of the fascinating Words from the White House.
Austin Powers may have thought he was on the cutting edge when he asked the lovely Vanessa Kensington, “Shall we shag now, or shall we shag later?” But the International Man of Mystery was a few centuries behind the time – “shag” as a verb with sexual innuendo was first recorded not by Austin’s counterparts in the 1960s or 1970s, but by Thomas Jefferson in the 1770s. It turns out, as Paul Dickson explains in his Words from the White House, that our third president was only one in a long line of wordsmiths. Dickson, a veritable word “czar” (from Richard Nixon), has collected the words and sayings of presidents who “neologized” (Thomas Jefferson) — from our “Founding Fathers” (Warren Harding) to the rest. It’s an edifying and entertaining read, and if you’re a word lover, you might even call it “cool” (Abraham Lincoln).
Q&A with Paul Dickson
Interviewed by Carrie Callaghan
It’s hard to believe, but you’ve written over 50 books in your career, a good number of them about words. How did you come to this interest in words and language?
I’ve had it since I was a kid and collected words like other kids collected baseball cards. I suppose I did it to show off as much as anything else. As a writer, about a third of my books are lexical. Some are serious attempts to create reference books, such as The Dickson Baseball Dictionary which has come out in three editions since the first in 1989. The third edition has more than 10,000 entries, and I am now working on the fourth edition, which I have penciled in for 2019. The other word books tend to be more amusements — books that cater to people who love wordplay and word history — what has come to be called “recreational linguistics.” Words from the White House falls into this category and like most of my books was a joy to research and write.
There’s obviously a lot of research that goes into your books. How do you tackle a topic like this?
Words from the White House was research-intense, with a lot of reading and a lot of work with proprietary full-text databases such as those available at the Library of Congress, including the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. I read a lot of presidential biographies for this as well. For example, one of the bios of William McKinley tells of his creating the first war room, from which he used telegraph, telephone and walls of maps to direct the Spanish-American War. So here is where a concept and a term is coined.
This isn’t just a book about words, it’s also a book about presidents. You highlight some fascinating “firsts” while laying out the list of U.S. presidents (for example, Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have a Christmas tree in the White House). Did any of those firsts surprise you?
Probably that U.S.Grant was the first president to see the Pacific Ocean — somehow this drove home the vastness of the United States and how little our early leaders knew of it firsthand.
In terms of verbal firsts, the one which was most surprising was that Warren G. Harding invented the term “Founding Fathers” for his 1920 run for the White House. Before Harding, the group that had written the Constitution were known as the “framers.” Harding also brought us “normalcy” and “bloviate” — to orate bombastically.
You make the fascinating case that presidents, by virtue of their prominent positions, have made significant contributions to American English. This started as an intentional effort on the part of our leaders to set the United States apart from England. Do you think modern presidents (and their aides) still intentionally craft new words?
I think presidents and their staffs are always trying to come up with a powerful word or phrase that will reflect their time in office and their influence on the country. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Dwight Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial Complex are probably two of the greatest presidential coinages of the 20th century.
Some of the words you include are so incorporated into our lexicon that it’s surprising to see their origin attributed to presidents (for example, “indoors” from George Washington and “mammoth,” when referring to size, from Thomas Jefferson). Were there any words whose presidential origin surprised you?
There were dozens of true surprises. At one level the biggest surprise was probably the number of new words introduced by Thomas Jefferson, who alone gets credit for more than 100 new words. Among those that survive are “lengthily,” “belittle,” “public,” “electioneering,” “indecipherable,” “monotonously,” “ottoman” (the footstool, not the empire), “pedicure,” the noun “bid” and, appropriately, the verb “neologize” — to create new words and phrases. In a single-term example, I was rather amazed to find that the term “state of the union” as a name for the annual report to Congress by the president did not come along until Franklin D. Roosevelt gave it a name in 1934. Roosevelt also created the slang term “iffy” for something that is doubtful. Speaking of Roosevelt, he claimed that he got the term New Deal from Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
You come out at the end of the book concluding that Teddy Roosevelt is presidential top dog for coining new words and phrases. Can you explain how you decided?
Theodore Roosevelt did not win on volume but rather on the cleverness and freshness of the words and phrases he left us: “lunatic fringe,” “mollycoddle,” “muckraker” and, appropriately, “bully pulpit,” as well as some wonderful TR phrases and aphorisms such as “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” A columnist wrote in 1947: “Theodore Roosevelt struck off like sparks from a horseshoer’s anvil word combinations that have burned their way into our everyday speech.” He was also the first to use “loose cannon” to describe an irrational person. Roosevelt, who boasted that “no president ever enjoyed himself in the presidency as much as I did,” seemed to have a recreational fascination with new ways of expressing himself.
A few of the words or phrases here are less known than the rest, but are still wonderfully apt. (“Nature fakers” by Theodore Roosevelt was one of my favorites, referring to people claiming false observations of nature.) Are there any that you think deserve wider use and recognition?
“Trocar” would be my suggestion — in the sense that Harry Truman used it. A trocar is a medical instrument used to channel fluid from a body cavity. In the context of rural Missouri, where Truman was from, a trocar was an instrument (often homemade) that you use to stick into a bull or a cow to relieve bloat. Truman wrote a note to Michael V. DiSalle, who served as price stabilizer at the Office of Defense Mobilization, after he read DiSalle’s criticism of the overinflated egos of Washington fat cats: “Dear Mike, Since I’ve been in Washington I’ve seen many stuffed shirts, and your wise-crack about Washington life remind me of how we used to use a trocar on a clovered [swollen from eating too much clover] bull. There is a loud explosion and the bull resumes his normal shape and usually recovers. Keep sticking ’em.”
You’ve also written a number of books about baseball. One of your baseball terms is “an FDR pitch” — although you’re not referring to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Are there any intersections between baseball and political lingo?
The baseball FDR stands for a wild pitch. It was Lew Burdette’s term, which stood for fire, duck and run.
The language of baseball is well entrenched in political language. In fact, when the real FDR gave his “fireside chats” to the American people, he knew he needed to use a familiar language so he used baseball metaphor. He talked about his box score with Congress and about getting to first base with legislation. Everyday political speech is alive with baseball-ese, even among pols and pundits who are out in left field. Insider politics is called “inside baseball.”
And which president do you think was the greatest baseball fan? (Or would have been, if baseball had been around!)
There was a form of rounders — a precursor to baseball — played at Valley Forge, so it has been around in one form or other from the beginning. Hands down, the best baseball player was George Walker Bush, who was actually a top college player at Yale after World War II. Yale was playing the very best teams in the country then and Bush was actually scouted for the majors. Woodrow Wilson actually coached baseball when he taught at Wesleyan; William Howard Taft was the man who introduced the custom of throwing out the first ball; and George Walker Bush was a co-owner of the Texas Rangers. Biggest fan? Tough question because so many of them truly loved the game — Harry Truman, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and the two Bush presidents would have to be at the top of the list.
If it’s not impolitic, how do you think our current president measures up as a neologist?
Pretty good. He came up with “shovel-ready,” “Sputnik moment,” “Snowmaggedon” for the great 2010 winter storm and, of course, “all wee-weed up,” which is how he described Washington in the summer of 2009. “Obamacare” was imposed upon him by those who opposed the Affordable Care Act, but he may have the last laugh on that term as a negative. Of course, he now has four more years in which to make his mark on the language, at which point it will be time for an updated version of Words from the White House.
Carrie Callaghan is a member of the Editorial Board of The Washington Independent Review of Books.