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George Washington

Unpresidential presidential quotations in the OED

The Oxford English Dictionary is founded upon millions of quotations, which trace the history of each word starting with its earliest recorded use. America’s presidents are well represented among the authors of those quotations; after all, they are influential speakers and writers whose words are painstakingly recorded and preserved. Presidential quotations often turn up in just the entries you would expect (James Madison at federalist; FDR at freedom; Theodore Roosevelt at rough-rider). But precisely because so many of the presidents’ personal writings—letters, diaries, and business records—have been preserved, they are cited in much more prosaic entries as well. The following is a selection of presidential OED quotations of a distinctly unpresidential nature.

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George Washington

George Washington is cited over 500 times in the OED, in the entries for democrat and Illuminati, among others. One of his less presidential contributions can be found under the word hussy:

hussy n.: 1795   George Washington Let. in Writings (1892) XIII. 158
A more. . . impudent huzzy, is not to be found in the United States.

John Adams

John Adams’s most salient quotation in the OED may be the first citation for the political Americanism caucus. However, it is also fitting that a politician from Massachusetts, renowned for its cranberry bogs, should provide us with the first example of cranberry sauce:

cranberry sauce n.: 1767  John Adams Diary 8 Apr. (1961) I. 334
Tufts..determined to go over, and bring [them]. . . to dine upon wild Goose and Cramberry Sause.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson’s papers are by far the most frequently cited of any US president, with over 1700 quotations in the dictionary. Jefferson holds the distinct honor of being credited with the first citation in the OED’s entry for shag, in its slang sense ‘to copulate with’:

shag v.: 1770  Thomas Jefferson Memorandum Bks. 27 Dec. (1997) I. 200
He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.

This mysterious quotation has inspired some speculation in the blogosphere. Jefferson appears to be discussing a legal case involving slander, in which the plaintiff claimed to have been accused of the deed here described. If nothing else, this is proof that Americans have been insulting each other with Oedipal accusations since Colonial times.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford Hayes is cited only twice in the OED. One of these is in the entry for pregnant adj. as used to denote a compelling or obvious argument. The second is more charming and colloquial: he provides the first example of peekaboo used as an interjection.

peekaboo int.: 1846  Rutherford B. Hayes Let. 22 Nov. in C. R. Williams Diary & Lett. Rutherford B. Hayes (1922) I. 190
Love to all. Peek-a-boo to Lolly and Willie.

Theodore Roosevelt

‘Teddy’ Roosevelt was a prolific author in a variety of genres. He is quoted over 100 times in the OED, in entries which underscore his larger-than-life cowboy persona (safari, bronco, dogie) as well as those which reflect his role as a politician (indictment, liberty, Republicanism). Roosevelt provides the first OED citations for lunatic fringe and for the figurative use of bandwagon. More surprisingly, given his outdoorsy reputation, he also provides our first example of paperwork to denote ‘routine administrative or clerical work’. My favorite quotation from Roosevelt, though, points to his role as a paterfamilias:

hide-and-seek n.: 1908  Theodore Roosevelt Lett. to his Children 2 Jan. (1919)
Do you recollect how we all used to play hide-and-go-seek in the White House?

In 1908, when the letter was written, Roosevelt was still president. It seems that his wistfulness was not about bygone days in the White House, but about the transience of childish pursuits; he was writing to his son Archie, who was nearly 18 at the time.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDR inhabited the White House far longer than any other president, but he is quoted in the OED only 17 times. Anyone familiar with his presidency will not be surprised to see that new deal is among those entries. More unexpected is FDR’s appearance in the entry for turtleneck:

turtleneck n.: 1896  Franklin D. Roosevelt Let. 14 Oct. (1947) 47
I should very much like a red turtle neck sweater for skating and coasting.

At first glance it is somewhat baffling that the most powerful man in America should yearn for a winter sweater of a specified color. Look closely at the date: Roosevelt, born in 1882, would have been just 14 at the time, and anticipating a winter of outdoor recreation. It was not until 1921, as an adult, that he contracted the polio which left him almost unable to walk.

Richard Nixon

Given how history remembers Nixon’s presidency, it is not surprising that the 37th president’s 16 appearances in the OED include the entries for conspiritorialist and tape v. (“I was not comfortable with the idea of taping people without their knowledge,” 1978). However, another one of his quotations in the dictionary is a reminder of happier, simpler days:

toll-house cookie n.: 1978  Richard Nixon Memoirs 316
After our meeting we had a delicious lunch of steak and fresh corn on the cob, followed by Lady Bird’s homemade toll-house cookies.

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OED editors do not privilege the writings of presidents above those of ordinary English speakers when choosing quotations; we choose the most illustrative examples available over the course of a word’s history (and for the first quotation at each sense and entry, the earliest found). But the words of presidents are more thoroughly documented than those of ordinary speakers, of course, and they often write books, which further establish their usages in the historical record.

Four of the five presidents alive today have already been quoted in the OED. As they continue to live their public lives, we may see even more of their words find their way into the dictionary, whether in the most elevated rhetoric of their speeches or the mundane details of their daily menus.

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