Mark Forsyth: How Does History Change The Meaning Of Words? Etymologist Mark Forsyth shares the surprising back story on the term "president."
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How Does History Change The Meaning Of Words?

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How Does History Change The Meaning Of Words?

How Does History Change The Meaning Of Words?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And our show today is all about language, spoken and unspoken. What we say, how we say it, right down to the anatomy of a word. One single word. And that word is...

MARK FORSYTH: President.


FORSYTH: Absolutely, that's the big one.

ANNOUNCER: ...The president of the United States.

FORSYTH: The most powerful man on Earth.

RAZ: This is Mark Forsyth. He studies and writes about words.

FORSYTH: You look back at the history of language and how words change so much. And, I mean, I wrote a whole book, "The Etymologicon," all about this. Words can't control the world. The world controls words.

RAZ: Now in his TED Talk, Mark tells the story of that word, president, and the battle to control what it meant.


FORSYTH: I want to take you back to the United States of America just after they had 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? And this was debated in Congress for ages and ages. And there were all sorts of suggestions on the table, which might have made it. I mean, 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. Some people just wanted to call him King. They thought it was tried and tested. And they weren't even being monarchical, though, they had the idea that you could be elected King for a fixed term. And, you know, it could've worked. And everybody got insanely bored, actually, because this debate went on for three weeks. And I read a diary of this poor senator who just keeps coming back - oh, 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, most pathetic title 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?

RAZ: So it's amazing that the idea that the word was almost, like, designed to humiliate George Washington.

FORSYTH: It was. It was actually - somebody said in the Senate, they said that this is ridiculous, you have the president of a cricket club or fire company. I mean, cricket was actually played in America back in those days. You cannot call the head of the state president. But whatever title they'd given him, it would have acquired that glory. You know, in the end, they could've called him Bunny Rabbit Washington. And now bunny rabbit would have, you know - would sound really, really...

RAZ: The most feared bunny rabbit on the planet.

FORSYTH: Yeah. I mean, if the bunny rabbit has a fleet of drones, you respect the bunny rabbit.


FORSYTH: And after three weeks of debate, in the end, the Senate did not cave in. Instead, they agreed to use the title president for now. But they also wanted it absolutely set down that they didn't agree with it. Now you can learn three interesting things from this. First of all, and this is my favorite, is that so far as I've ever been able to find out, the Senate has never formally endorsed the title of president. Second thing you can learn is that when a government says that this is a temporary measure, you can still be waiting 223 years later. But the third thing you can learn - and this is the really important one, this is the point I want to leave you on - is that the title President of the United States of America doesn't sound that humble at all these days, does it?

Reality and history have endowed that title with grandeur. And so the Senate won in the end. They got their title of respectability. Now do you know how many nations have a president - 147. All because they want to sound like the guy who's got the 5,000 nuclear warheads etc. And that's the important lesson I think you can take away and the one I want to leave you with. Politicians try to pick words and use words to shape reality and control reality. But, in fact, reality changes words far more than words can ever change reality.

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. And all these things - I mean, words can change reality a bit until people notice that the thing with this name is really, really unpleasant or really, really pleasant - whatever it happens to be. If somebody says to you, would you like a kitten? And you say, oh, a kitten - and, yes, please. And they just punch you in the face. And say would you like another kitten? You're going to say no.

RAZ: OK, so do you think that we shape our language or does it shape us?

FORSYTH: I think we shape language more than it shapes us. And reality - history shapes language. And that's the beautiful thing - it's lovely when you can trace the history of words because you suddenly - you stop and say, what, it meant that back then? And it changes the way you see the word and the way the world has changed that word.

RAZ: Mark Forsyth. His latest book is called "The Horologicon: A Day's Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language." You can hear his entire talk at

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