Back Story: Presidents say the darnedest things

Painting of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third president of the United States.
Painting of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third president of the United States. (The Bettman Archive)

Paul Dickson, a Garrett Park resident, loves the origins of words and is a compiler of word books and dictionaries.

So imagine my delight and pleasure when my friend, Mary Garson, who is also fascinated with etymology, gave me a copy of Dickson's recently published book, "Words from the White House," a dictionary of presidential utterances that have become a part of the American vernacular.


The next time you use "iffy," you might be surprised to learn that the word goes back to the New Deal.

"Iffy. Describing a question, proposal, prospect, or decision that is full of 'ifs'; something that is contingent, doubtful," writes Dickson. "This adjective is the invention of Franklin D. Roosevelt."


To satisfy the most ardent of pedants among us, Dickson has provided ample information backing up his research and conclusions. The results are to be found in the back of the book in eight pages of detailed notes along with a four-page bibliography. They are informative and fascinating, and worth the endless flipping back and forth when reading.

Back to FDR and "iffy." Dickson said the president began using it early in his administration. He cites a May 9, 1937, article in This Week magazine that contains the passage: "Very 'iffy,' Mr. Roosevelt might characterize such talk."

He also cites a Jan. 17, 1941, reference from the Chicago Daily News: "The President had been asked the status of some proposal, or of some event … whether this event was likely to happen. … The president replied that the whole thing was 'iffy.' "

"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" is a commonly heard American cliche.

The Soda Springs Sun, an Idaho newspaper, reported in July 1942 that the phrase was a "favorite rejoinder of Senator Harry S Truman, when a member of his war contracts investigating committee objects to his strenuous pace: 'If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen.' "

A president delivering a State of the Union address (FDR coined that one, too, in 1934) may refer to the "founding fathers." The phrase conjures up the "collective name for American statesmen of the Revolutionary period," writes Dickson.

The honor of creating the phrase belongs to President Warren G. Harding, who first used the expression in 1918 while representing Ohio in the U.S. Senate. He dredged it up again for his 1920 "front porch" campaign, writes Dickson.

"Manifest destiny" was the handiwork of reporter John L. O'Sullivan in 1845 and was later popularized by President James K. Polk, who used it to describe his plans to expand the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Polk was described as the nation's first "dark horse" — a term coined by Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, who used it in his 1831 novel "The Young Duke" — when he ran for president in 1844.

Abraham Lincoln is responsible for many coinages, including "Don't swap horses in the middle of the stream," which he used during the presidential campaign of 1864, and which FDR revived in 1936, when he urged voters, "Don't change horses in midstream."

It was Theodore Roosevelt who began using the term "malefactors of great wealth" in 1895 to describe the robber barons and the insensitive wealthy. There are other great lines that emanated from that Roosevelt: "bully pulpit," "lunatic fringe," "mollycoddle" and "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Not all presidential patois belongs to the ages. "Spin doctor" came about during the administration of Ronald Reagan. It was Richard M. Nixon who employed "silent majority" in a Nov. 3, 1969, speech on the Vietnam War, to describe the American citizenry who supported the war.


Barack Obama has coined a few phrases, as well, including "shovel-ready" to describe proposed projects that would begin once Congress gave the necessary financial approval.

The award for coining the most presidential expressions goes to the loquacious Thomas Jefferson, who is credited with more than 100 — including "public relations."

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