Leaders of the Free Word: Presidential Neologisms Past and Present

Believe me, a lot of people –the best people– have told me that Donald Trump used the adverb “bigly” in the first presidential debate on Monday (though others say he was saying “big league”). Now, however you feel about The Donald, I think it’s important to remember that he is not the first guy with his eye on the Oval Office to use some unexpected phraseology.

Just a few short years ago, American satirists, writers, and pundits had a field day with George W. Bush’s famous “they misunderestimated me” — was it a portmanteau of “misunderstood” and “underestimated”? Was it just an extra syllable added to “underestimated”? Either way, the word came to represent the popular image of President Bush as a bit of a buffoon with a penchant for malapropisms (Bushisms, as they came to be known).

Another president popularized a word that we frequently use today, though not without the same sorts of contemporary criticisms levied at Bush. On May 14th, 1920, then-presidential candidate Warren Harding delivered a speech in which he appealed for “normalcy” in American society after the cataclysm of World War I. Journalists of the day roundly mocked Harding for using the word, which they viewed as a corruption of “normality”. However, “normalcy” was indeed a word, with its first recorded use in print ten years before Harding’s birth.

Although her White House (well, Blair House) dreams were never realized, former VP hopeful Sarah Palin tweeted in 2010 that American Muslims must “refudiate” a mosque in Lower Manhattan near the site of the World Trade Center. Like Bush 10 years before her, Palin seemed to create a portmanteau of two words which would both work in the context of her statement: refute and repudiate.

After coming under fire for her missive (which she soon deleted), Palin responded that the English language is not set in stone and new words are coined all the time. I make no secret of my vehement disagreement with Sarah Palin’s views, but for once, I agree with her here. As Harding’s “normalcy” demonstrates, we can and do add new or unfamiliar words to our lexicon pretty readily; that’s one of the beauties of English and language in general. As I mentioned in my review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, the flexibility and adaptability of language reflects our own adaptability, flexibility, and ingenuity as a species, which has allowed us to dominate the planet (for better or for worse).

Of course, having an extensive, flexible vocabulary that one can use correctly is an important asset, especially in a speech-heavy profession like politics; however, no matter how we may feel about a politician, we should not be so quick to vituperate (or refudiate, as it were) perceived verbal gaffes — after all, we may be saying those words completely unironically soon enough.


Condon, Stephanie. (2010). Palin’s “Refudiate” Tweet on Mosque Near Ground Zero Draws Fire (for Substance and Style). CBS News. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/palins-refudiate-tweet-on-mosque-near-ground-zero-draws-fire-for-substance-and-style/

No Author. (2016). Did Warren Harding Coin “Normalcy”? Merriam-Webster. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/did-warren-harding-coin-normalcy

No Author. “Top 10 Bushisms”. Time. Accessed 30 September 2016. Retrieved From: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1870938_1870943_1870945,00.html.

Harding, Warren G., “Back to Normal: Address Before Home Market Club,” Boston, Massachusetts, May 14, 1920. From Schortemeier, Frederick E., ed. Rededicating America: Life and Recent Speeches of Warren G. Harding. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill), 1920, pp. 223-229. Retrieved From: http://livefromthetrail.com/about-the-book/speeches/chapter-3/senator-warren-g-harding.



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