Monday, February 28, 2011

Hail to the Lexicon

Last weekend Spouse, Spawn and I headed down to DC to attend our friends Michael & Ron’s wedding and spend time with old pals. A marvelous time was had by all! As we headed out of town listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU (DC’s NPR station) we heard a segment on the many words and popular phrases that were introduced into the English language by US Presidents.

I knew that Shakespeare introduced somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 words into the language. In fact, based on intensive studies of his works by those whose job it is figure out such things it is estimated that Shakespeare’s vocabulary numbered about 17,000 words, or four times the number of words in the vocabulary of a well-educated speaker of English. What I did not know is that US presidents have attempted to give him a run for his money over the years.

The Americans and the Brits have always had a different way of looking at and adding to the language we call English. According to Kojo’s guest, Paul Dickson, the author of over fifty books, whose current project is a tome on this very subject: the British…were very prescriptive about language. And going all the way back to Noah Webster, Americans believed that you listened and wrote down the words people were actually speaking…the British system was learned men sitting around, stroking their beards telling you what words were useful and could be used and what words weren't. At the time of the founding of the United States the British had no library or copyright systems. Webster and Benjamin Franklin believed that to create these things along with an “American language” we were committing acts of rebellion and resistance. According to Dickson, “when Franklin forms the first free library in Philadelphia, where everybody can go and borrow books, he's doing this as an act of sedition, an act of sort of thumbing his nose at the British”.

So, what have our presidents added to the lexicon over the years? From George Washington we get indoors, non-discrimination, off-duty, paroled and one of my all time favorite words, bakery.

Don’t you wonder what we used to call new words before Thomas Jefferson devised the term neologism? Jefferson is known to have added at least one hundred new words to our vocabulary including Public Relations, belittle and Anglophile (which at the time was assuredly NOT a compliment). The next time you go to a spa and get a pedicure be sure and say thank you to Mr. J. Although, one does wonder what was going on at Monticello that he needed to invent such a word.

Before George W. Bush bemused us with words like misunderestimate and strategery there was Warren G. Harding. Harding’s use and abuse of the language was so notorious it was called Gamalielese (Gamaliel being his middle name). Warren G. did manage to leave a few terms hanging around like Founding Fathers, and normalcy.

From John Adams we get quixotic, and from Eisenhower Military Industrial Complex. Ike also gave us Academic Intellectual Complex but that one never really caught on.

The award for most colorful legacy goes to Teddy Roosevelt who,besides strenuous, brought us bully pulpit, mollycoddle, weasel words and pussyfoot.

The jury is still out on Obama’s attempt at linguistic glory, wee-weed up. No one seems quite sure what exactly at means but saying it does bring a smile. Maybe you can find a way to use it in an intelligible sentence in the comment section.

Here’s the broadcast in its entirety.

PS The photo is from the Ruterford B. Hayes presidential library circa 1952. Wonder what words he came up with.


Malcolm MacLeod said...

Loved your site. "Wee-weed up" has to mean a state
of excitement where one has minimal incontinence.
Being from Charlottesville, I was fascinated to learn
the neologisms that TJ added to English. They are
much easier in German, and don't raise eyebrows.

Wendy Lane Bailey said...

Thanks, Malcom! I love Charlottesville. I didn't know that Mr. Jefferson had such an impact on our language until I heard this show. They certainly didn't mention it when I toured Monticello a few years ago.