Why President? How The U.S. Named Its Leader On this Presidents Day, we dig into why the United States calls its leader the "president."
NPR logo

Why President? How The U.S. Named Its Leader

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/466848438/466848845" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why President? How The U.S. Named Its Leader

Why President? How The U.S. Named Its Leader

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/466848438/466848845" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This Presidents' Day holiday got us wondering why the U.S. calls its leader president instead of something else. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Selena Simmons-Duffin looked into this for us and is here in the studio. Hey, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari. So - do you know this? - 'cause you were the White House correspondent.

SHAPIRO: I should know it. I feel embarrassed not to know it. Thanks for calling me out.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, OK.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I'll give you some info. In the 1780s, when founders were writing the Constitution, they didn't know what to call the person in the executive branch.

SHAPIRO: They definitely didn't want to go with king.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Absolutely not. And this word, president, was around at the time. Here's linguist Ben Zimmer from vocabulary.com to drop some Latin on us.

SHAPIRO: All right.

BEN ZIMMER: It comes from praesidere, which literally means to sit before.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So if you preside over a gathering, you are its president. So it's kind of like chairman or foreman. And back then, this word was used a little bit in other contexts.

ZIMMER: For instance, the head of a college or university. Oxford and Cambridge had presidents all the way back in the 15th century. It was also occasionally used for the heads of colonies. Going back to Virginia in 1608, they had a president.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And in 1774, the Continental Congress had a president, but it was totally ceremonial. It wasn't, like, a power kind of thing.

SHAPIRO: So was Article 2 of the Constitution really the first time the leader of a country was called a president?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes. And after George Washington was elected to that role, Congress had a little bit of a panic about it. So I'm going to have historian Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon of the First Federal Congress Project pick up the story.

KATHLEEN BARTOLONI-TUAZON: In April of 1789, Washington was making his way to New York City to be inaugurated, and Congress started to have this discussion about how are we going to address him once he gets here?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So king was Your Majesty - right? - and governors were Your Excellency. And Washington was actually Your Excellency when he ran the Revolutionary Army. So president was just blah (ph). The Senate just thought this doesn't seem suitable at all. They brainstormed a bunch of options.

BARTOLONI-TUAZON: Elective, majesty, sacred majesty, elective highness, illustrious highness, serene highness. The Senate actually went on record as recommending His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.

SHAPIRO: That's a mouthful.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Ari, can you imagine that in press conferences at the White House?

SHAPIRO: No, sure can't. I wonder what the acronym for that would be.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: (Laughter) So the House on this issue was unanimously like, absolutely not. It should just be president, nothing more, nothing that would get us anywhere close to a monarch.

SHAPIRO: So the House and Senate deadlocked. Shocker.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes. They were deadlocked for three weeks. It was, like, arduous debate back and forth. And finally, the Senate relented. They went with president, and that's what we have today.

SHAPIRO: No more serene protector, huh?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: No, none of that.

SHAPIRO: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.