National Press Club

Dickson reports presidential coinages from Washington's 'administration' to Adams' 'XYZ affair'

January 16, 2013 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver |

National Press Club member Paul Dickson told a Jan. 15 National Press Club Book Rap that presidential language reveals the 43 men who have occupied the White House.

“You can look at the different presidents and really see who was clever, remarkably clever. I mean really the smartest,” he said.

He quoted favorite phrases from his new book, "Words From the White House: Words or Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents."

Thomas Jefferson was the most prolific president, Dickson said. The Oxford English Dictionary credits him with creating or coining more than 110 words, he added. Dickson relied on the Oxford Dictionary in his research. That book is the “be-all, end-all” resource for determining when a word is first used, he said.

Dickson’s book is presented in an A to Z format beginning with “administration” first used by George Washington in his farewell address and ending with “XYZ Affair,” a foreign-policy scandal during John Adams’ term.

John Adams is also credited with the words “squatter” and “caucus” and Washington with “bakery.”

George W. Bush was often criticized for making up words but two of his most famous were from the 16th century, Dickson said. “Embetter” or to make one better dates to 1583, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and “resignate” instead of resonate first appeared in 1531. A third George W. Bush word, “strategery” was never used by the president but rather by his Saturday Night Live double.

While presidents become known for key phrases, they can get in trouble if they use slang, Dickson said. “There is a language police out there,” he said.

Abraham Lincoln refused to change the term “sugar-coated” even though it was not considered dignified, Dickson wrote.

“The 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 ‘sugar-coated’ means,” Dickson quotes Lincoln as saying in 1865.

In the 20th Century, sports terminology was a favorite of presidents. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used baseball terms in his fireside chats and Dwight David Eisenhower later used football metaphors to describe the bureaucratic process. While the golf term “mulligan” was in use before Eisenhower began playing golf, it became popularized during his presidency. A “mulligan” is a golf shot that goes awry and the player gets another shot.

In addition to using the Oxford English Dictionary, Dickson researched proprietary databases at the Library of Congress, he said.

After the event, Dickson signed copies of his book, sold as a fundraiser for the National Journalism Institute.

Dickson has written more than a dozen books about language. He is currently working on a book about words or phrases first used by authors for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald first coined the word “t-shirt,” he said.