American Presidents Helped These Words Join Our Everyday Vocabulary

Our historic presidents of the past have given us constitutions, amendments, laws, remarkable speeches, freedom ... and some unique English words that we now use pretty often.

We've rounded up seven words that were made popular by our past presidents. They said it once and we all latched on for a lifetime. Have you used one of these words before?

WATCH: Quotes That Show How Our Greatest US Presidents Coined Our Most Common Words

moment

Early America was a hotbed of political discussion and neologisms.

In 1781, George Washington wrote about the early formation of the United States, "The present temper of the states is friendly to the establishment of a lasting union; the moment should be improved; if suffered to pass away it may never return."

This is actually the first recorded use (meaning it was the first time anyone saw it in writing) of moment in its meaning of "of a brief or opportune time to accomplish a goal" or "a particular time or period of success, excellence, fame, etc." George Washington didn't only seize his days, he seized every moment, too.

The word moment was of course used a bit before Washington's time. The first ever recording was in 1300–1350 and it originally derived from the Latin mōmentum meaning “motion, cause of motion.”

out-of-the-way

At the time of George Washington and the other founding fathers, "American" English sounded very similar to "British" English. However, young Americans were inventing new words to accommodate novel situations in the colonies they were experiencing (just like today).

On October 10, 1756, George Washington was actually a pretty young person and he, once again, decided to use a word in a new way. He wrote to Governor Robert Dinwiddie, criticizing the placement of military forts: "one of them, if no more, erected in my opinion in a very out-of-the-way place." This was then published in a book of George Washington's letters and writings called ... Writings in 1931.

This sense of "secluded" was also novel, not typically seen in the bustling cities of England, but actually probably more applicable in the vast American frontier where anything could seem out-of-the-way ... which is why this was the first time anyone had seen this term used in this way.

Out-of-the-way actually originated in 1250–1300 from Middle English meaning "seldom encountered; unusual."

belittle

Through the early 1600s, the word little was used as a verb in English, though its adjectival sense has always been more well-known.

But Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, has the first recorded use of the verb belittle in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. He wrote, "So far the Count de Buffon has carried this new theory of the tendency of nature to belittle her productions on this side of the Atlantic."

In Jefferson's sense, to belittle is "to regard or portray as less impressive or important than appearances indicate." And indeed, when Jefferson wrote this in 1775–85, he gave us this Americanism.

Which lesser-known President popularized our next well-known word?

caption

The word caption is both young and old. It became widespread in the 20th century with the use of printed images that often needed explaining.

However, James Madison (fourth President of the United States) was the first to write it down in a 1789 letter to Thomas Jefferson, wrote: "You will see in the caption of the address that we have pruned the ordinary stile of the degrading appendages of Excellency." This line was later published in Writ in 1904.

Madison's use of the word is the first recorded use indicating "a title or explanation for a picture or illustration, especially in a magazine," or "a heading or title, as of a chapter, article, or page."

The word caption has actually been around since 1350–1400 in its meaning of "taking or seizing," which isn't used much anymore.

Michigander

The first-recorded use of this term for a native of the state or territory of Michigan is from 1825–35 by none other than Abraham Lincoln when he was still a congressman.

During that time Lincoln spoke against Presidential candidate Lewis Cass, long-time governor of the Michigan Territory. "I mean the military tale you Democrats are now engaged in," Lincoln said, "dovetailing onto the great Michigander."

Michigander now means "a native or inhabitant of Michigan," but when Lincoln said it he was choosing to combine Michigan with gander (a male goose) characterizing Lewis Cass as goose-like.

Fun fact: Michigander is a demonym or "the name used for the people who live in a particular country, state, or other locality."

lunatic fringe

This word refers to more than the fringe on your jacket; a lunatic fringe is "a small group of fanatical followers of a political or social movement."

Theodore Roosevelt used the term in 1913 in reference to a break-out group of anarchists: "There is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement."

In this use, Roosevelt recognizes the lunatic fringe as a side effect of forward political motion. And his use of this term sealed it in history as an Americanism originating in this time (1910–1915).

normalcy

Originating in 1855–60, normalcy made brief appearances in technical and mathematical dialogue. But in 1920 the word got a serious boost in popularity when soon-to-be-president W.G. Harding used it in a campaign speech:

"America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums (remedies) but normalcy; not revolution but restoration."

Normalcy meaning "the quality or condition of being normal, as the general economic, political, and social conditions of a nation; normality," was at the forefront of Harding's platform for returning the United States to its pre-WWI equilibrium and his 1920 speech was the first time the word was seen in this way.

 

Searching for some normalcy in your life? Try brushing up on the words and phrases that have become part of everyday life during the Covid-19 pandemic.