THE BLOG

The Linguistic Legacy of American Politics

05/15/2013 07:26 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2013

For all the legacies that American politics has bequeathed to the world, one that rarely gets acclaim is its linguistic legacy. Many words that originated from American politics have permeated our general lexicon.

One would be hard pressed to complete a day without multiple uses of the word "OK," not just in the United States but also around the world. Martin Van Buren was nicknamed "Old Kinderhook" simply because he hailed from Kinderhook, N.Y. Van Buren became known as "OK" for short. During his 1840 reelection campaign, his supporters created "OK clubs." Although the expression OK had been around for some time, Van Buren's campaign popularized the expression. Van Buren's political adversaries mendaciously claimed that OK originated from his predecessor and ally Andrew Jackson. They alleged that Jackson was a poor speller, and that Jackson believed that OK was the abbreviation for "all correct."

Origins of the word "booze." Van Buren's major opponent in the 1840 presidential campaign was William Henry Harrison. Harrison's campaign gave the world a new term and a new saying. Whisky distiller E.G. Booze promoted Harrison's campaign by selling whisky in log cabin-shaped bottles. The term booze became synonymous with whisky. Also in that campaign, Harrison supporters rolled a 10-foot globe from one campaign rally to the next to the chant of "Keep the Ball Rolling." Hence was born a popular expression. Ironically, the linguistic legacy of the Harrison campaign trumped any legacy of the Harrison presidency. Unfortunately, Harrison died of pneumonia just 32 days into his term.

"The first lady." President Zackary Taylor coined the term "first lady" while delivering a eulogy at the funeral service for Dolly Madison. Taylor said of Madison: "She will never be forgotten, because she was truly our first lady for a half-century."

In 2000, after conceding the presidential election to Texas Governor George W. Bush, Vice President Al Gore told the American people he would "mend some fences literally and figuratively in Tennessee." U.S. Treasury Secretary John Sherman coined this phrase in 1879. He told an audience in his native Mansfield, Ohio: "I have come home to look after my fences." While Sherman likely meant that he was coming home to look after the fences on his farm, the line came to mean that he was trying to consolidate political support in his home state.

John Sherman was not the only member of his family to add to the American lexicon. In 1884, there was an active effort by some Republican Party activists to draft former Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman to seek the Republican nomination for President. Sherman stated definitively: "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." This unequivocal language left no wiggle room for Sherman to explore a candidacy. This absolute language is today called a "Shermanesque statement." When an individual says he/she will not run for a certain office, reporters often ask if the candidate will make a "Shermanesque statement" that they will not run.

The term "teddy bear" was named after President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1902, the president accepted an initiation by Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino to join a bear hunting expedition in the Mississippi Delta. The president had an unsuccessful hunting trip. The nationally acclaimed hunter Holt Collier was one of the guests on the trip. He was also serving as an animal tracker for the president. Collier managed to captured a bear cub, and instead of shooting it, he hit the cub on the head with his rifle, and tied it to a tree. He wanted the president to shoot it so the president could boast of a successful hunting trip. When Roosevelt saw the little bear, he refused to shoot it, arguing that it would not be a fair fight. Political cartoonist Clifford Berryman got word of the episode and published a cartoon of Roosevelt declining to shoot the bear. Ever the opportunists, candy store proprietors Morris and Rose Michtom made a stuffed bear and coined it "Teddy's bear." It is now simply called "teddy bear."

The term "goody-goody" was originally coined in the 1890s as a term of derision for "good government guys," or "goo-goos." These "goody-goodies" were politicians who supported government reform and an end to government graft and corruption.

In 1916, rising star U.S. Senator Warren G. Harding (R-OH) delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. In that address, he popularized the term "Founding Fathers." Although Harding had uttered the phrase in front of a local audience, this was the first time he had used the phrase in addressing a national audience. Harding was elected President in 1920, and used the term "Founding Fathers" in his 1921 inaugural address.

The term "Cold War," describing the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union after WWII, was coined by financier Bernard Baruch in 1947 at the unveiling of his portrait in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Baruch was a native South Carolinian, and when using the term Cold War was referring to relations between management and labor. In that speech, Baruch intoned: "Let us not be deceived -- we are today in the midst of a cold war. Our enemies are to be found abroad and at home." The media began using Baruch's term to refer to the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States, a war not fought on the battlefield.

"The GOP." Today, the acronym GOP (which stands for Grand Old Party) is synonymous with the Republican Party. The term has an interesting history. In fact, the acronym was originally used by the Democratic Party. It was coined by a loyal Georgia Democrat in 1878. The term became synonymous with the Republican Party after the 1888 presidential election, in which Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated incumbent Democratic president Grover Cleveland. The Chicago Tribune, sympathetic to the Republican Party, declared: "Let us be thankful that under the rule of the Grand Old Party... these United States will resume the onward and upward march which the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884 partially arrested."

GOBBLEDYGOOK! The term "gobbledygook" was coined by former U.S. Representative Maury Maverick (D-TX 1935-1939). Maverick was serving as the head of the United States Smaller War Plants Corporation during WWll. Maverick had little forbearance for technocratic language that he could not understand. Accordingly, Maverick wrote a memorandum to his employees saying: "Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For Lord's sake, be short and say what you're talking about ... anyone using the words 'activation' or 'implementation' will be shot." The word "gobbledygook" was the brainchild of Maverick, imitating the noise a turkey makes.

A "Sister Souljah Moment." An unlikely American whose name has become part of American parlance is rapper Sister Souljah. In her single, "The Final Solution: Slavery's Back in Effect," Souljah says: "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Souljah was invited to address the Rainbow PUSH Coalition run by Civil Rights activist Jesse Jackson. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the likely presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, addressed the audience. Clinton told the crowd: "If you took the words 'white' and 'black,' and you reversed them, you might think David Duke (Former KKK Grand Wizard and Louisiana Gubernatorial candidate) was giving that speech." This was a political masterstroke in that it distanced himself from Jackson, who was seen as a liberal ideologue by many centrist voters who Clinton was assiduously cultivating. In addition, there was no discernable deleterious electoral impact regarding Clinton's support from the Democratic base. A "Sister Souljah Moment" now refers to any political candidate who challenges their own base with the intent of winning centrist voters.

The above words and expressions are just a few of the linguistic contributions American politics has given to the world. Although these words are used freely today without much thought, the words were quite bizarre when originated. "OK." Enough of this "gobbledygook!"