1. Administration—George Washington
As the first U.S. president, George Washington not only defined the role of the chief executive, he also coined certain words to explain elements of the presidency such as the commander in chief’s period of time in office, which he called an “administration.” Washington introduced the new use of the word in his Farewell Address in 1796 when he wrote, “In reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error.” The Oxford English Dictionary credits Washington with the first evidence of the usage of 32 words—including “average” and “indoors.” As Dickson notes, however, that doesn’t mean the first president coined the terms, only that his writings contained the earliest recorded instances of them, in part because his papers were among the few to survive from the 1700s.
2. First Lady—Zachary Taylor
In the early decades of the United States, the president’s wife was commonly referred to as the “presidentress”—quite a mouthful. Not until Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison in 1849 did that begin to change. “She will never be forgotten because she was truly our First Lady for a half-century,” the twelfth president wrote of the widow of the fourth president. The title eventually grew in usage to encompass all presidential wives.
3. Founding Fathers—Warren G. Harding
Today’s common collective reference to the Revolutionary War-era statesmen who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution had an unlikely start in a 1918 speech given by then Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding to the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution in which he said, “It is good to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the Republic.” Harding, who had a penchant for alliteration, wielded the term again during his 1920 presidential campaign, and it soon supplanted the usage of “framers” to describe America’s Revolutionary leaders, which Dickson says changed the way we now view them. “The use of ‘framers’ connotes a much more diverse group, while ‘founding fathers’ sounds like they were this group of men walking in lockstep, and of course the reality is they had huge disagreements on voting, slavery and other issues.”
4. Iffy—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Although Franklin D. Roosevelt was a patrician with a very high-class way of speaking, Dickson notes that he wasn’t afraid to include slang in his linguistic arsenal, such as the use of the word “iffy” to describe uncertainties or Supreme Court decisions with which he disagreed. Roosevelt commonly swatted away hypothetical queries from reporters at press conferences by saying, “That’s an iffy question.”
5. Lunatic Fringe—Theodore Roosevelt
Dickson says that Theodore Roosevelt—whose contributions to the popular lexicon included “bully pulpit,” “muckraker,” “loose cannon” and “pack rat”—was the most masterful president at coining new phrases. “So many of his constructions are still around and still have his imprint on them. He just seems to have been the most colorful presidential contributor to the language,” Dickson says. After leaving the White House, Roosevelt added to his linguistic legacy when in his review of the avant-garde Armory Show in 1913 the unimpressed former president wrote, “The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.” The term soon crossed over from the art world to the political arena to characterize those with beliefs well outside the mainstream.
6. Mulligan—Dwight D. Eisenhower
America may have liked Ike, but not as much as Dwight D. Eisenhower loved golf. The duffer-in-chief even popularized a term now in common parlance on golf courses around the world. In 1947, the Washington Post reported that after hitting a wayward tee shot, Eisenhower invoked executive privilege to hit another ball without taking a penalty. “General Eisenhower got away from the first tee gracefully on his second shot, taking advantage of the rule of ‘Mulligans’ to smite one far down the middle after hooking his first shot into the trees,” the newspaper reported. Eisenhower’s do-overs became common practices during his White House days, and so did the use of “mulligan.”
7. Pedicure—Thomas Jefferson
No president coined more words than Thomas Jefferson. The Oxford English Dictionary credits America’s third president with the introduction of 110 new words including “belittle,” “mammoth” and, aptly, “neologize” (a word meaning the creation of new words). “Jefferson and his peers felt it was their duty to create a new language,” Dickson says. “They wanted to create an American identity that included a distinct national language.” As part of his work in forging a linguistic identity apart from the Queen’s English, Jefferson imported a number of French phrases from his years living in Paris, including the use of “pedicure” to describe the care of feet, toes and toenails.
8. Quixotic—John Adams
A voracious reader, John Adams in 1815 recalled the windmill-tilting protagonist of Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” in describing a Venezuelan revolutionary who hoped to unite all of Spanish America as “a Quixotic adventurer.” Dickson notes that there had been earlier uses of the word, but the second president’s reference helped to popularize it.
9. Squatter—James Madison
In a 1788 letter to Washington, James Madison delineated several factions who might be opposed to the newly drafted U.S. Constitution, including a group of representatives from Maine who occupied land owned by others and to which they had no legal title. “Many of them and their constituents are only squatters upon other people’s land, and they are afraid of being brought to account,” wrote Madison in the first recorded instance of the word “squatter.”
10. Sugarcoat—Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was capable of employing both soaring oratory and plain-spoken language. In a July 4, 1861, message to Congress, Lincoln used the latter to take aim at secessionists who claimed their actions were constitutional: “With rebellion thus sugar-coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government.” The official government printer objected to Lincoln that the use of “sugar-coated” was beneath the linguistic dignity of the presidency, but the Great Emancipator stood firm and reportedly said, “The time will never come in this country when the people won’t know exactly what sugar-coated means.”
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10 Everyday Phrases Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Made Popular
Have you gone down a rabbit hole lately? Did you, perhaps, happen upon this very post by going down an internet rabbit hole? Thanks to Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you have the exact words you need to describe your world-wide-web wanderings.
As it turns out, his wildly popular story is the source of many other common cultural phrases. So common, in fact, that even if you haven’t read Alice, you probably quote it all the time. (Much like you probably quote Zoolander all the time, except with more accuracy.) Follow us on a long, strange etymological journey where all paths lead back to Wonderland.
1. DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Only a Tweedledee would contest that this is Carroll’s singular most important contribution to the English language—even if its meaning has morphed in modern times. This phrase as well as others “started appearing almost immediately after the book was first published” in 1865, says Carolyn Vega, curator of the Morgan Library’s exhibit "Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland," running through October 12. “It becomes a positive feedback loop. As these phrases get out into the world, you have this ramification of knowing about the story without having read it. And the phrases spread further.”
2. MAD AS A HATTER
That is to say, crazy—like, really, really crazy. Though the phrase had been in use since 1835 to describe an unusual medical condition affecting hat manufacturers (really!), everyone still knows it because Carroll was a marketing genius. “He was the first children’s book author to license his characters for use on other products, so the characters had individual lives,” says Vega. This leads to what many a childless aunt or uncle will recognize as the Frozen effect: “The characters become familiar to a group of people wider than the readership of the book,” Vega explains. And one of the reasons the story became so popular, Vega posits, is “because it doesn’t end in a moral or a lesson. All children’s writing up to that point did.”
3. CHESHIRE CAT GRIN
Much as with our buddy the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat has been ingrained in the membrane. The adjectival phrase is, once again, associated with a specific character. So whenever someone describes a person as grinning like a Cheshire cat, we can picture that huge, mischievous—and slightly unsettling—smile.
4. OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!
Sure, Shakespeare scribbled it first—but Carroll’s Queen of Hearts certainly popularized the imperative.
5. I'M LATE, I'M LATE, FOR A VERY IMPORTANT DATE
We feel you, White Rabbit. We have as much FOMO as you do.
6. WHAT A STRANGE WORLD WE LIVE IN
Alice uttered it to the Queen of Hearts. And now we say it to each other … whenever we watch a Bravo marathon.
7. CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
English comp students rejoice! You can say this in a paper—or when you grow inexplicably and rapidly taller.
The word existed prior to Carroll. But, as Vega points out, “Now it means something very specific. It’s Alice’s wonderland—that’s what we think of when we think of the origin of that word.” Sorry, Taylor Swift.
9. TWEEDLEDEE AND TWEEDLEDUM
From the 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, this one’s particularly useful for playground battles, presidential campaigns, and Halloween.
Prior to its 1871 print debut, jabberwocky was a nonsense word that served as the nonsense title of a nonsense poem in Through the Looking-Glass. Now, it’s a real entry in the real dictionary that really means “meaningless speech.” What a strange world we live in, indeed.
11 Words and Phrases Popularized by World War I
This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. (Mental Floss has been commemorating it in a series of articles on the events leading up to the war). The Oxford English Dictionary is honoring the centenary with an appeal to the public for help in finding the earliest documented uses of words that first came into English during World War I. The current citations for these words are from magazines and newspapers, but there may be earlier examples in personal letters, soldiers' diaries, or government records. Can you find earlier uses? Submit your evidence and help the OED capture the history of our language.
Camouflage had been used in French to mean "disguise" since the 19th century. The earliest evidence of its use in English, in reference to hiding weapons from the enemy, comes from 1916.
2. Shell shock
A 1915 study by psychologist Charles Samuel Myers titled, "A contribution to the study of shell shock" is the first documentation for the use of this term in English. "But some accounts suggest that Myers did not invent the term that it was already in use at the front and Myers merely popularized it (and regretted it: in a later book he described shell shock as a ‘singularly ill-chosen term’)."
Jusqu'au bout, "until the end" in French, was the basis for the formation of this noun referring to someone willing to stick it out until the bitter end, to carry a conflict to extremes without worrying about the consequences. The earliest example is from a 1917 issue of Punch, but the use of "jusqu'au bout" in English to describe the attitude goes back at least as early as 1915 so the noun may have been formed earlier.
Short for demobilization. The first quotations for both the noun and verb form come from 1919.
5. Streetcar (meaning "a shell")
The earliest citation for this slang term is from 1920, but the novelist Raymond Chandler claimed in a 1950 letter that this had been one of "the most commonly used words of soldier-slang" when he served in WWI. There may be more evidence out there for this one.
Short (and usually derisive) for "conscientious objector." The earliest quote comes from a 1917 Daily Mail article. Britain began military conscription in 1916.
7. Trench foot/mouth
The trench warfare of WWI was brutal, and the environment of the trenches where soldiers spent so much time led to painful conditions they called trench foot, and trench mouth. The earliest printed evidence for these terms comes from 1915 and 1917 respectively.
8. Tank (as a verb)
The military tank was first used in 1916 and the word has been used as a noun ever since, but we only have evidence of tank used as a verb in the sense of "attack with a tank" or "travel by tank" since 1930. The OED editors say that while "there is plenty of earlier evidence for the verb tank relating to the noun meaning ‘large receptacle’, we find it surprising that there are no earlier uses of the verb relating to the military vehicle. Is there evidence we haven’t found yet?"
Also spelled as "iti" or "eyety," this was a slang term for an Italian. The earliest evidence for this form is a 1919 quote claiming that "our army in Italy always spoke of the Italians as the 'Itis' (pronounced 'Eye-ties')."
10. Zeppelins in a cloud
This phrase was used to mean "sausage and mashed potatoes" according to a 1925 dictionary of Soldier & Sailor Words. But so far no pre-1925 documentation has been found.
11. Sam Browne (meaning "an officer")
Army officers used to wear something called Sam Browne belts in the 19th century, and that gave rise to the use of Sam Browne as a slang term for officer during WWI, though the first evidence for the use is from 1919.
The list of OED appeals for WWI words is here, and you can find out more about what kind of evidence they're looking for and how to submit it here.
3. Culture War
The modern concept of an American culture war dates back to the early ‘90s. But the polarizing "battle lines" only truly seem to have solidified in the 2010s.
Perceived threats to one's race, gender, religious, and cultural identity are one of the only commonalities shared by both sides.
Generally-speaking, partisan politics used to be defined by economics. But the past decade saw a sharp rise in increasingly personal and identity-driven political divides. Identity politics doesn't just refer to its derogatory connotation of social justice warrior snowflakes advocating for cancel culture and political correctness (though that's part of it). The rise of the alt-right, modern white supremacy, and men's rights activists show how perceived threats to one's race, gender, religious, and cultural identity are one of the only commonalities shared by both sides.
In truth, definitive, hard facts about the culture war — why it began (like online echo chambers), when it began, or even the exact nature of its existence — are kind of impossible to determine in any level-headed manner while we're in the thick of it.
But what's undeniable is its impact on language, with each side forming its own set of distinct terminology: problematic, microaggressions, virtue signaling, toxicity, gaslighting, safe spaces, triggered, red pilled, Q-anon, incel. In a world of alternative facts, when even words like fake news — coined for the specific purpose of trying to objectively measure our post-truth existence — lose all meaning, it's hard to be sure of anything.
Excerpts: 'Safire's Political Dictionary'
mistakes were made: A passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.
Politicians have had frequent occasion to lean on this crutch, a linguistic construction creatively described by William Schneider, at the American Enterprise Institute, as the past exonerative.
President Ronald Reagan took general responsibility in his 1987 State of the Union address for selling weapons to Iran in order to obtain the release of hostages, but sidestepped the rest of the Iran-contra scandal (using profits from the arms sales in an effort to overthrow the government of Nicaragua), saying, "we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so." Lt. Col. Oliver North, convicted of ordering the destruction of documents in trying to conceal this activity, had his conviction overturned because Congress had given him limited immunity. The bemedaled Marine said later: "I'm not ashamed of it. People say 'Mistakes were made.' But I'll also tell you lives were saved."
President Bill Clinton resorted to the same passive, impersonal admission in January of 1998, replying to questions about improper Democratic party fundraising activities with the bland "Mistakes were made here by people who did it either deliberately or inadvertently." In March of 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to defuse complaints about the firing of eight U.S. prosecutors, saying: "I acknowledge that mistakes were made here."
The unapologetic apology can be softened even further by prefacing it with a hypothetical "if." Anonymous aides to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied in 2005 that she had admitted to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the U.S. had abducted a German citizen by mistake. Instead, they insisted that Ms. Rice "had said only that if mistakes were made, they would be corrected."
A blame-spreading refinement is to cast the apology in the more distant present perfect tense. PLO leader Yasir Arafat took this tack when fending off criticisms in 2004 by Palestinian legislators, conceding that "Some mistakes have been made by our institutions." Connecticut's ex-governor John Rowland downplayed his admission of guilt to a federal corruption charge the same way, telling the press that "Obviously mistakes have been made throughout the last few years, and I accept responsibility for those."
A skillful further refinement is the subordinate-clause admission or error, compounding passivity and present-perfection with a conditional "whatever," as in this sentence of a George W. Bush speech urging Americans weary of war in the fall of 2006 to stay the course: "Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone."
The artful dodge of the impersonal apology has roots. President Ulysses S. Grant, fondly remembered by grammarians for his activist self-description, "I am a verb," appended a note to his final annual report to Congress on December 5, 1876, acknowledging the scandals that had plagued his two terms in office with the words, "Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit."
A disarmingly honest way of admitting error was shown by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, criticized in the 1940s for closing the elite Townsend Harris High School: "I don't make many mistakes, but when I make one it's a beaut!" It takes the wind out of the sails of criticism.
When the lexicographer admonished a political figure for using the much-ridiculed "mistakes were made," he replied, not for attribution, "lessons were learned."
spinmeister: A disparaging term for an expert at presenting negative facts in the most positive possible way.
Spinmeister surfaced shortly after the synonymous spin doctor. The oldest example in the OED comes from Newsweek in 1986: "The spinmeisters can't take all the credit for the burst of patriotic solidarity." The -meister suffix (from the Yiddish meyster, "master") has been attached to many words over the years, always with negative impact. Among them: hypemeister, jargonmeister, newsmeister, perkmeister (one who dispenses favors and patronage in political organizations), and, the closest parallel to spinmeister and perhaps partly an inspiration for it, schlockmeister, where schlock (probably from the German Schlacke, "dregs, dross") applies to cheap or shoddy goods of all sorts, including information. For example, from James Michael Ullman's 1965 novel, Good Night, Irene: "Public relations, an elastic term that encompasses everything from crude schlockmeisters operating out of phone booths to high-powered representatives of billion-dollar corporations."
The title of spinmeister has been awarded to a wide variety of personages, including political consultants, staffers, publicists, pundits, press secretaries, and office-holders, from the president on down. Calvin Trillin entitled one of his "deadline poems" for The Nation in 2006 " 'Mushroom Cloud' Rice, The Icy Spinmeister, Tries Again." This was an allusion to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's 2002 likening of Saddam Hussein's suspected nuclear weapons program to a smoking gun that could turn into a mushroom cloud.
In using the word applied to women, spinmeister is practically required, since the grammatically logical alternative for a female spinner of spin would be spinster, a term that was once gender-neutral but which has been applied mainly to unmarried women, pejoratively "old maids," for the last several centuries.
weasel words: Ambiguous speech deliberately fuzzy phraseology.
"One of our defects as a nation," said Theodore Roosevelt in 1916, "is a tendency to use what have been called weasel words." He had popularized the phrase as president, and gave this example of what he meant: "You can have universal training, or you can have voluntary training, but when you use the word 'voluntary' to qualify the word 'universal,' you are using a 'weasel word' it has sucked all the meaning out of 'universal.' The two words flatly contradict one another." (The origin of that metaphor can be found in Shakespeare's As You Like It, when "the melancholy Jaques" asks Lord Amiens to continue his singing: "I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.")
Author Stewart Chaplin explained the phrase in an article about political platforms in a 1900 issue of The Century Magazine: "weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell. If you heft the egg afterward it's as light as a feather, and not very filling when you're hungry but a basketful of them would make quite a show, and would bamboozle the unwary."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, "was extremely impatient with some of the drafts that came over from the State Department during those years, and with some of the suggested corrections in the drafts he had sent over to them for consideration. He felt that they were too apt to use 'weasel words' (a favored phrase he had borrowed from Theodore Roosevelt) that they made too many reservations and were too diplomatically reserved."
Editor William Allen White, writing about the direct quality of Wendell Willkie in 1940, thought the Republican candidate was making headway because "The American people are tired of the smoothy in politics—even if he is honest. They don't like the oleaginous weasel words with which so many politicians grease their way back when they venture upon a dangerous salient of honesty."
President Nixon, in a meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1972, first used the word in high-level international diplomacy (and presaged the use of cover-up in the same sentence): "The conventional way to handle a meeting at the summit like this, while the whole world is watching is to have meetings for several days, which we will have, to have discussions and discover differences, which we will do, and then put out a weasel-worded communique, covering up the problems." Nixon then disclaimed such intention.
The colloquial verb to weasel means "to renege on a promise," usually for some cowardly reason. In prison slang, it refers to an informer. The Wentworth-Flexner Dictionary of American Slang adds that "applied to small, thin males, the word retains its physical connotation." Why the weasel has acquired a cowardly reputation is not known it is a bold, vicious little beast that kills more than it can eat. In snowy areas, it acquires a white coat and enters judicial metaphors as ermine.
President Eisenhower wrote to Ambassador to Italy Clare Boothe Luce in 1953: "I assure you first that, so far as I know, we have no intention of weaseling on our October 8th decision on Trieste." In that forthright statement, "so far as I know" are weasel words.
Excerpted from Safire's Political Dictionary published by Oxford University Press. © 2008 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
5. Keeping Up With The JonesesA "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921 Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.
Surprisingly old words that seem contemporary
Fake news was not coined by President Donald Trump, though he suggested something of the sort in a 2017 interview.
Last week I posed a question about words and phrases that are surprisingly old. Which of these were first used before 1950, and which after? The contestants were “See you later, alligator,” “No pain, no gain,” fake news, computer, blog, hipster, swag, dude, flash mob, and nerd.
Let’s start with the new ones. Nerd is right on the boundary, having appeared in teenage slang in the early 1950s. The teens evidently took it from Dr. Seuss: A nerd is an imaginary creature in his 1950 “If I Ran the Zoo.” As soon as young people began to use it, adults began to deplore it, with a 1951 Newsweek article complaining that “someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” Drip is just a more decorous insult, I guess.
I always thought “See you later, alligator” was quite an old phrase, because my grandparents, born in the 1910s, would say goodbye that way. Instead it turns out to be evidence that as adults they were hip to some contemporary music. This phrase, as well as the response, “after a while, crocodile,” was popularized by a Top 10 hit song in 1956.
And it would be cool if the word blog predated the internet, but it does not. It first appeared in 1999.
Now for the oldies. Fake news was not coined by President Donald Trump, though he suggested something of the sort in a 2017 interview. It’s unclear whether he claimed that he invented the word fake, or that he was the first to link it to the media, but either way that’s . fake news. The term actually dates from the late 19th century, when it was used by newspapers and magazines to boast about their own journalistic standards and attack those of their rivals. In 1895, for example, Electricity: A Popular Electrical Journal bragged that “we never copy fake news,” while in 1896 a writer at one San Jose, California, paper excoriated the publisher of another: “It is his habit to indulge in fake news. . [H]e will make up news when he fails to find it.”
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Today a flash mob is a group of people who suddenly assemble in public and perform a choreographed routine, perhaps a dance or freezing in place. Swag is free stuff, from travel-sized shampoo bottles to expensive handbags, depending on whether you’ve gone to the opening of a new store at the mall or the Oscars. Both these terms originated in thieves’ cant, the venerable secret slang used by cheats and villains. In the 19th century, a flash mob was a group of confidence men and women who dressed up in respectable clothing the better to swindle their victims swag referred to stolen goods. Free stuff, indeed.
Next week I will cover the remaining words and phrases: computer, hipster, dude, and “No pain, no gain.” Are they young or old? Make your guesses!
It’s funny how some words come into common use from time to time. I’m not talking about slang words, though that in itself is a great topic of conversation dig? I’m talking more about existing words and phrases that emerge from the dusty pages of the dictionary into the sunlight of media use, specifically in reference to presidents.
John F. Kennedy had “charisma.” I’m not sure if the lack of charisma in his opponent, Richard Nixon, made Kennedy’s personality seem much brighter. Dwight Eisenhower, who was president when I was born, was nice, but nobody called him charismatic. I think JFK brought that word out of the shadows.
During President Johnson’s administration the word “quagmire” became prominent. It was a good word to describe the Viet Nam situation, both policy wise and muck-wise. That quagmire kept him from running for a second term.
During the Nixon years the word “cover-up” became very commonly used. I don’t remember hearing it much before that time. Surely it was an apt term for what that administration was attempting to do, but others had attempted the same thing in previous administrations – such as the Bay of Pigs disaster when the CIA made a failed attempt to invade Cuba in the Kennedy years.
Gerald Ford was made fun of for being accident prone, but I don’t recall any particular words associated with him.
President Carter had “stag-flation,” which sounds like blowing up a deer, but actually described the unusual situation of having a stagnant economy and high inflation at the same time.
President Reagan elicited great support and great opposition. “Homelessness” became a common term starting the day he was elected. Of course, there had been homeless people before that, but they hadn’t been used as a political issue before Reagan.
President George H.W. Bush popularized the word “prudent,” with the help of Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey.
President Clinton could “Feel your pain.” (Insert something funny here, if you’d like.)
President George W. Bush spawned a flood of media people using the word “gravitas,” which was a word nobody had used since Caesar. We were told again and again that he didn’t have it.
President Obama became associated with “Hope and Change,” genuinely by his fans and sarcastically by his opponents.
Now President Trump is on duty and associated with the word “collusion.” It’s not a word people often used until he became commander in chief. In fact, there is no mention of collusion in the criminal code. But, we’ve heard the word a lot just the same… or, at least we have up until now.
The Top 10 Pieces of '90s Slang, Booya!
All slang ends up sounding ridiculous and dated after enough time has gone by the ‘90s, however, were a unique brand of bizarre that holds a special place in my heart. I’m sure it does in the hearts of many of you, too, so, in honor of Throwback Thursday, let’s revisit some of the strange words and phrases that made up our formative years. The selection here leans slightly towards my own bias I have, however, attempted to cover as much ground as possible, including 10 wide and varied terms, each with their own, detailed entry.
The entries are all divided up into five sections: The words or phrases themselves and their parts of speech, their definitions, examples of their usage, their origins, and their current forms in today’s cultural lexicon (if, that is, they have managed to both survive and evolve). Naturally, it’s all very scientific — by which I mean it is not scientific in the slightest, so go take it up with an actual linguist if you think I’m wrong.
So, in no particular order, I give you: Bustle’s Selected Dictionary of ‘90s Phrases and Terminology. Feel free to add to the list on Facebook or Twitter!
1. Wiggins (n.)
Definition: An uncomfortable or uneasy feeling a sense of foreboding.
Usage: “I don’t know, man. Something about him gives me the wiggins.”
Origin: Coined by Joss Whedon in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997). From “Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest”: “This place give me the wiggins.” – Buffy.
Current form: Various, including the verbs “freaks me out,” “weirds me out,” etc. “Wiggins” itself may be used as a marker for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in particular or Joss Whedon in general.
2. You go, girl/guy! (excl.)
Definition: An expression of encouragement. Possibly a network television adaptation of inner city jargon.
Origin: Unconfirmed, although many site the 1992 – 1997 Martin Lawrence television show Martin as its original source. Some, however, trace the phrase as far back as Renaissance England in this instance, the Nurse’s encouragement of Juliet to “Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days” in Act I, scene iii of Romeo and Juliet is considered to be the earliest usage of the phrase.
Current form: Since the theatrical release of Mean Girls in 2004, “You go, Glen Coco!” has largely supplanted “You go, girl/guy!”
3. NOT (adv.)
Definition: An indication of sarcasm a modifier which denotes the preceding statement as false.
Usage: “What a totally amazing, excellent discovery… NOT!”
Origin: First proliferated by the Mike Myers and Dana Carvey Saturday Night Live sketch “Wayne’s World,” which periodically occurred in episodes from 1989 to 1994. It entered widespread usage after the release of the Wayne’s World feature film in 1992.
Current form: “HAHAHA no,” as demonstrated here by John Watson:
4. Bogus (adj.)
Definition: Not good very, very bad.
Usage: “Bogus. Heinous. Most non-triumphant. Ah, Ted, don't be dead, dude!”
Origin: Although the word itself has existed since the late 18th century, at which time it described machines for making counterfeit currency, this particular definition became a part of the cultural lexicon thanks to the feature films Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991).
Current form: Various, including “not cool,” “bad move,” etc.
5. Talk to the hand (v.)
Definition: An expression of contempt for another person’s words. Sometimes expanded to “Talk to the hand ‘cuz the face ain’t listening” or “Talk to the hand ‘cuz the face don’t understand.”
Origin: Unknown, although similar to “You go, girl/guy!”, some trace it to the Martin Lawrence sitcom Martin.
Current form: Various, including such physical gestures as eye rolling or simply turning around and walking away. Variations on a theme may also be used, as demonstrated here by Sheldon Cooper:
6. As if! (interj.)
Definition: An expression which derides a topic of conversation as unlikely or impossible. Companion to “NOT.” See also: “Whatever.”
Usage: “Can you believe Rick asked me to the Spring Fling? As if!”
Origin: A Southern Californian “Valley Girl” term, “as if!” was popularized by the 1995 feature film Clueless, itself an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma.
Current form: “HAHAHA no,” this time demonstrated by Miley Cyrus:
7. Take a chill pill (v.)
Definition: Relax don’t worry about it stop freaking out, whatever is going on isn’t actually that bad.
Usage: “Jeez, Mom, take a chill pill — I only had one beer. Everyone else had, like, three.”
Origin: It is sometimes asserted that “chill pill” became popular nickname for Ritalin and other medications intended to treat ADD and ADHD at the time of their initial introduction. This claim has been unsubstantiated, however, and should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. I personally think Xanax would make a better chill pill, but I digress.
Current form: Various, including the simpler, “Oh, relax.”
Definition: A retraction of the previous statement with the intention of fooling the listener. Commonly misspelled “sike,” “syke,” etc. Generally mean-spirited.
Usage: “Oh, you’re thirsty? Here, let me give you a sip of my water… PSYCH!”
Origin: This usage of the word may have seen its beginnings in 1934, at which point the verb form “to psych [someone or something] out” meant “to outsmart.” Editor’s note: I had no idea this particular meaning was so old. TIL, right?
Current form: “Just kidding!” Should the recipient of the phrase express displeasure at being fooled, it may be followed by, “Can’t you take a joke?”
9. Whatever (interj.)
Definition: Used to connote a feeling of apathy. Often accompanied by a hand signal formed by holding the thumb and pointer finger of each hand in an L shape and layering them on top of one another, forming a W shape. The stress commonly falls on the second two syllables.
Usage: "Are you listening to me, young lady?" "Whatever!"
Origin: Similar to “as if,” “whatever” gained popularity through the 1995 film Clueless.
Current form: Unchanged, although the “W” hand signal often no longer accompanies the word, unless done ironically.
10. Booyah (excl.)
Definition: An expression of joy or triumph.
Usage: “I totally aced my history final! Booyah!”
Origin: Unknown, although ESPN anchor Stuart Scott is known for his frequent use of the term. Curiously, “booyah” is also a stew or thick soup of Belgian origin popular throughout the Upper Midwestern United States.
Current form: Unchanged, if used somewhat more ironically in the contemporary lexicon.
‘Words From the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents’ by Paul Dickson
President Obama is now hard at work carving out his legacy — his heart set on being remembered for decisive action on health care, gun control, immigration and equal rights. But there’s one arena where No. 44 has to pick up his game. So far, according to lexicographer Paul Dickson, Obama’s impact on our language has largely amounted to passing on to the American people the phrase “wee-weed up.” Speaking at a national health-care forum in the summer of 2009, Obama dropped the rather coarse neologism to describe the riled-up mood in Washington: “There’s something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up. I don’t know what it is. But that’s what happens.”
Not much of a linguistic legacy, so far.
As Dickson shows in his thoroughly enjoyable new book, “Words From the White House,” presidents have had an amusing and influential impact on our language. In creating a new nation, the founding fathers were also busy creating a new language, with Thomas Jefferson having a hand in more than 100 additions to American English. “I am a friend to neology,” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1820. “It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.” One of Jefferson’s most vivid creations — a simple compounding of ideas — is “circumambulator” (one whol walks around), which he used in describing explorer John Ledyard, who wanted to be “the first circumambulator of the earth.”
Thumbing through this compact lexicon turns up some real treats. We discover that the hoary-sounding term “founding fathers” isn’t of colonial vintage at all. It wasn’t until 1918 that the phrase entered the language, when Warren G. Harding, then a senator from Ohio, used it in remarks to the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution: “It is good to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the Republic.” He pulled out the phrase again later that year, adding a twist that has stayed with us to this day. Complaining that President Woodrow Wilson was inappropriately assuming powers for himself in post-World War I planning, Harding insisted that Congress should take the lead. “That was,” Harding said, opening the linguistic floodgates for generations to come, “the intent of the founding fathers.” Before Harding, the men who gave birth to America were known as the “framers” or “the framers of the Constitution.”
The presidents’ words serve as escorts through history, reflecting the character and times of the men who uttered them. Abraham Lincoln famously defined his era in a phrase when, addressing the issue of slavery, he told the Republican state convention in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” That powerful rhetoric, Dickson reminds us, is only partly Lincoln’s, for the original phrasing is found in the Gospel of Mark: “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”Theodore Roosevelt was characteristically rambunctious in dashing off colorful phrases for example: “lunatic fringe,” which he created to describe cubists and other artists with works on display at a controversial 1913 exhibit in New York.‘Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents’ by Paul Dickson (Walker)
Some presidential phrases show that the arc of American history is sometimes just a monotonous straight line. Back in 1948, President Harry Truman, highlighting the inaction of Congress, forced the chamber into a special session during the summer and minted a verbal slap for the delinquent body: the “do-nothing Congress,” which sounds as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines.
Richard Nixon’s troubled presidency left its stains on the language with phrases that bring that era forcefully back to life. John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, revealed the inner workings of the administration when he testified before the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and introduced the term “enemies list.” Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who was ordered to take “the rough stuff” out when transcribing the White House tapes, made liberal use of the linguistic equivalent of White-Out: the term “expletive deleted.”
The phrases are arranged alphabetically, with an index of proper names at the back. Some are so much a part of our everyday parlance that it’s an aha moment to realize that a president actually thought them up. Take the term “first lady.” Isn’t this how we’ve always described the president’s wife? Each one may have been regarded as a first lady, but the term didn’t arrive until Zachary Taylor, the 12th president, reputedly used it in 1849 while eulogizing the wife of the fourth president, James Madison. Taylor is believed to have said of Dolley Madison, who died at age 81: “She will never be forgotten because she was truly our first lady for half a century.”
As the Obama adminstration and its opponents gear up to wrangle over a range of constitutional questions, it isn’t hard to imagine that one Jeffersonian creation that has dropped out of currency may find its way back in. Jefferson was far from happy with the interpretations of the Constitution rendered by Chief Justice John Marshall. Witheringly, he deemed them “twistifications.”