Here’s how presidents made some words OK

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Presidential influence transcends both terms and politics. Presidents change language, sometimes permanently.

And that’s “OK.”

Attempts to explain the origin of one of the world’s most popular words are as numerous as they are dubious. “OK,” or “okay,” has been in common use since the mid-19th century; speculative explanations include the Scots expression och aye (oh yes), the Greek ola kala (it is good), and Choctaw Indian oke or okeh (it is so). Least likely perhaps are the initials of a railway freight agent named Obediah Kelly.

While no one’s sure, the best accepted theory memorialized in Paul Dickson’s book “Words from the White House” credits presidential candidate Martin Van Buren’s campaign slogans. Van Buren’s nickname was Old Kinderhook (his New York birthplace). His supporters formed the OK Club, so the president was “OK,” along with many things since.

More presidentially popularized words and phrases from Dickson’s book, Oxford Dictionaries, and Dictionary.com:

Moment (opportunity): In 1781, George Washington wrote this about the nation’s early formation: “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 the first recorded use of moment as opportune time to accomplish a goal.

Belittle (make less valuable): Like the current president, Thomas Jefferson was creative with words. “Little” as a verb had been used since the 1600s, but Jefferson has the first recorded use of the verb “belittle” in his book, “Notes on the State of Virginia:”

“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.”

Jefferson is also credited with the tongue-twisting “circumambulator” (one who walks around), when describing explorer John Ledyard.

Do-nothing Congress: While accomplish-nothing Congress may be more accurate, it’s not as catchy. In 1948, a frustrated President Truman coined his disappointment with Congress’s failure to act on the affordable housing shortage by referring to them this way.

First lady: The first 11 weren’t, until Zachary Taylor eulogized the much-admired late wife of President Madison in 1849. Taylor is believed to have said of Dolley Madison, “She will never be forgotten because she was truly our first lady for half a century.”

Caption (image description): James Madison wrote in a 1789 letter to Thomas Jefferson, “You will see in the caption of the address that we have pruned the ordinary stile of the degrading appendages of excellency.” Madison’s use derives from the centuries-old legal term indicating a certificate or “note of caption.”

Lunatic fringe: Teddy Roosevelt transformed it from little textile strings to its current social meaning in 1913 in either (a) an address to the American Historical Association, referring to a group of anarchists: “There is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement;” or (b) to describe cubists and other artists at a controversial New York exhibit; or perhaps both.

Founding Fathers: Contrary to common belief, this term isn’t of colonial vintage. It wasn’t used until 1918 when then-Sen. Warren G. Harding addressed the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution by saying, “It is good to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the Founding Fathers of the Republic.” Before then, our political originators were known simply as the “framers” (of the Constitution).

Closing with the president known for the most words of wisdom, Abraham Lincoln’s famously defined his era — eerily like our current political climate. Addressing slavery, he told the Republican state convention in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” That powerful rhetoric, Dickson reminds us, Lincoln must have derived from the Bible’s Gospel of Mark: “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

•••

Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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