Paul Dickson’s book details the linguistic inventiveness of our commanders in chief.
Presidents talk a lot — it’s part of their job. And some of the words they use are pretty interesting, particularly to Paul Dickson, author of the new book “Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents.” Dickson, who has also published dictionaries on the languages of baseball and drinking, says he wrote this collection of executive-coined chatter for “the intrigue and the ‘gee-whiz’ factor in some of these stories.” And for some of the entries, the gee-whiz factor is high — particularly when you consider that some of the phrases have affected how we think about ourselves as Americans.
Warren G. Harding created this favorite American term; before his 1920 campaign, Jefferson, Adams et al were called “The Framers.” “If you say ‘Framers,’ it sounds like guys who came into your house and built something,” Dickson says. “ ‘Founding Fathers’ makes them sound almost like a collective body of wisdom. People now say, ‘Oh, the Founding Fathers, this was their thinking.’ The reality of the Founding Fathers was they didn’t think alike. They were, in fact, framers — a bunch of guys coming in and working together to create something.”
It was during the Spanish-American War that William McKinley created this phrase, which now means any place that’s the center of planning anything. “All of a sudden, McKinley realizes he’s got a telephone, a telegraph and a box of maps,” Dickson says, meaning that McKinley could receive up-to-the-minute news about what was going on over on San Juan Hill and keep all that information in one central location. “So, he clears out a room and declares, ‘Now I have a war room.’ ”
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The problem with this word, coined by Founding Father (um, Framer) James Madison, is that “it doesn’t fit with the way you typically build words” in English, Dickson says. Namely, it doesn’t come from “proper” languages such as Latin or Greek. This drove the Brits bonkers. “The British gave us this language — it was the King’s English. And we were supposed to just use it, not change it,” Dickson says. “But in America, the impulse is to have a descriptive language, the language of the trapper and the farmer and the militiaman, and not necessarily the language that’s being handed down from on high.”