Margo Dill: Author examines the language of U.S. leaders
With our 24/7 media world, as soon as the president of the United States utters a new word, phrase or saying, it's broadcast over TV news stations, posted on Internet sites and tweeted to the Twitterverse. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both been scrutinized for their use of slang or odd word choice ("Jedi Mind Meld," anyone?) in recent years.
But believe it or not, presidents have been coining terms (and being scrutinized about it) since George Washington.
Author Paul Dickson, who has written more than 55 books and hundreds of magazine articles, tackles the subject of the presidents' speech in his new, fascinating and entertaining book, "Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents."
The quote that opens the book is from a well-respected writer (and president), Thomas Jefferson: "Necessity obliges us to neologize." Neologize means to make up new words or create different definitions for existing words.
Jefferson did it when he coined "Anglophobia" in 1793 (in a letter to James Madison), which is the fear or dread of England and its people. Another example in more recent years: Obama used the term, "Sputnik moment," to mean "a point where people realize that they are threatened or challenged and have to redouble their efforts to catch up."
"Words from the White House" is divided into three parts, with an introduction. The introduction lists each president in order of office and explains some of their firsts — one of the most interesting parts of the book. High school and middle school history teachers could share these with their students; the list not only provides the presidents' order but also what was going on in the world at that time.
For example, who was the first president to actually live in the White House? John Adams. Which president was the first to be photographed? John Quincy Adams. Who was the first to view the Pacific Ocean? Ulysses S. Grant.
Next comes Section 1, Brave New Words, which is a short chapter about presidents and their word usage, including information about Noah Webster and his first dictionary in 1806. Believe it or not, Webster had outraged critics of his dictionary for putting in the words "presidential" and "congressional."
The middle section is the meat of Dickson's book and truly captivating, although you would probably not sit down and read it straight through like you would a novel. Dickson arranges the presidential terms and phrases in alphabetical order and provides a definition and story for each, with the president attributed to making them up in bold print.
Readers can quickly scan the list of terms or search for their favorite president's name to see which terms he thought up. The section is well-organized and well-researched — this is a great resource for historical fiction writers, too, who are wondering when certain terms were used first in the U.S.
Former President George W. Bush, who was often criticized for his oratory skills, is included in the book several times for words, such as "decider," "embetter" and "misunderestimate."
For those readers who have seen Daniel Day Lewis in the movie "Lincoln" and are interested in learning what they can about this past president, he's also in the book several times, including one of his most famous statements, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Dickson writes, "Perhaps Abraham Lincoln's most enduring metaphor for America, included in a speech delivered at the close of the Republication state convention that named him the candidate for the U.S. Senate ... June 16, 1858."
The third section of the book names "the neologist in chief" — not Lincoln, Obama, Jefferson or Bush, in Dickson's opinion. It's Theodore Roosevelt: "in this case, it is not the volume but the quality and sharpness of his constructions." Roosevelt is credited with terms like "muckraker," "weasel words" and "bronc."
If you enjoy books about the English language or the presidents of the United States, then you will love "Words from the White House." Almost any reader will find something interesting and of value in it, and it would make a great gift for a May graduate with an English, political science or history degree.
Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle-grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (http://margodill.com/blog/). Dill, a former Mahomet resident, lives in St. Louis with her family.