'President' Once Meant Little More Than 'Foreman'

Words are the currency of politics. But over time, the value of that currency can fluctuate. Writer Mark Forsyth tells the story of the origin of the word "president," and how its meaning has changed over time.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Gaffes, quotes, soundbites, headlines - words are the currency of politics. But time can change the value of that currency. From Guy Raz and NPR's TED RADIO HOUR, a look at the world's most powerful political word that wasn't always.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: So political language is - well, political.

MARK FORSYTH: I mean, every policy that comes out is going to be called, you know, the environment or the clean air bill. It's never going to be called the high taxes bill or something like that because, you know, people don't vote for the high tax bill - they vote for the clean air bill or the help our children bill or whatever it happens to be.

RAZ: This is Mark Forsyth. He writes about language. And when it comes to political language, there is one title, above all others, that means something very specific. And that title is?

FORSYTH: President.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIL TO THE CHIEF")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Speaker.

FORSYTH: Absolutely, that's the big one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The president of the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

FORSYTH: The most powerful man on earth.

RAZ: But the thing is, that wasn't exactly how it was supposed to sound. Mark explains the story in his TED Talk.

FORSYTH: I want to take you back to the United States of America just after they'd achieved independence. And they had to face the question of what to call George Washington, their leader. They didn't know. What do you call the leader of a Republican country? Some people wanted him to be called Chief Magistrate Washington, and other people, His Highness George Washington, and other people, Protector of the Liberties of the People of the United States of America Washington. Not that catchy. And everybody got insanely bored, actually, 'cause this debate went on for three weeks. And I read a diary of this poor senator, who just keeps coming back - still on this subject. And the reason for the delay and the boredom was that the House of Representatives were against the Senate. The House of Representatives didn't want Washington to get drunk on power. They didn't want to call him King in case that gave him ideas, or his successor ideas. So, they wanted to give him the humblest, meagerest(ph), most pathetic title that they could think of. And that title was president. President. They didn't invent the title. I mean, it existed before, but it just meant somebody who presides over a meeting. It was like the foreman of the jury. And it didn't have much more grandeur than the term foreman or overseer. There were occasional presidents of little colonial councils and bits of government, but it was really a nothing title. And that's why the Senate objected to it. They said, that's ridiculous, you can't call him president. This guy has to go and sign treaties and meet foreign dignitaries. And who's going to take him seriously if he's got a silly little title like President of the United States of America?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FORSYTH: But now, do you know how many nations have a president? A hundred and forty-seven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: More stories behind our everyday language this weekend on the TED RADIO HOUR with Guy Raz. This is NPR News.

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