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 the first recorded use of moment in the sense of a brief or opportune time to accomplish a goal. George Washington didn’t only seize his days, he seized every moment.
Though at the time “American” English sounded very similar to “British” English, the young Americans were inventing new words to accommodate the novel situations in the colonies. On October 10, 1756, George Washington 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 sense of “secluded” was novel, perhaps more applicable in the vast American frontier where anything could seem out-of-the-way.
Through the early 1600s the word little was used as a verb in English, though its adjectival sense has always been more prominent. Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, coined the verb formation belittle in his seminal 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 make something seem less valuable or important. Which lesser-known President coined our next well-known word?
The word caption is both young and old. It came into widespread use in the twentieth century with the vast proliferation of printed images that often needed explaining. However, James Madison (fourth President of the United States) wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1789 and told him, “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 of the word takes a tip from the legal sense popular since the late 1600s indicating a certificate or “note of caption.”
This term for a native of the state or territory of Michigan was coined in 1848 by none other than Abraham Lincoln when he was still a congressman. In July of that year 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.” The great emancipator’s neologism combines Michigan with gander (a male goose) characterizing Lewis Cass as goose-like.
This term for the quality of being normal or maintaining the status quo is synonymous with “normality” in English. Until the turn of the 20th century, normalcy made brief cameos 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 was at the forefront of Harding’s platform for returning the United States to its pre-WWI equilibrium.
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 coined 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 sense Roosevelt recognizes the formation of a “lunatic fringe” as a side effect of forward political motion. We hope you’ve enjoyed our presidential patter. May all Michiganders seize the moment, return to normalcy, and never belittle the lunatic fringe.