Presidents and the 7 deadly sins

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I've been busy trying to wear out "Speechwars" since my colleague Jim Fallows posted an entry about it yesterday, to help us all prepare for President Obama's State-of-the-Union-equivalent speech.

The New York TImes has been busy with the same thing, to judge from the interactive graphic on its online front page. (Sorry, I don't see how to link to the graphic itself in any permanent way.) The Times shows you the relative use over the years of all the obvious, important words, like "economy," "deficit," "jobs," and "energy."

As a sidebar to that sidebar, I thought I'd look into the presidents' relative use of the Seven Deadly Sins. Yes, I know, it's a Catholic thing and only one of our presidents has been a Catholic. But at least the list gives us something to count.

Theodore Roosevelt is the only president ever to have used the word "lust" in a State of the Union address.
"Gluttony"and "sloth" have had no takers.
The last president to actually say "greed" was Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1954.
The word "wrath" has been used 6 times, most recently by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. Since then, "wrath"s more contemporary synonym "anger" has been used 9 times.
"Envy" has come up 9 times, most recently in George W. Bush's 2006 address.
"Pride" has come up 109 times, in the speeches of every full-term president except Thomas Jefferson.

Shall we do the 7 heavenly virtues as well? (I'm going to use the set of them that Aurelius Clemens Prudentius popularized and that directly oppose the sins.)
"Chastity" and "temperance" each made one appearance, in the 19th century.
"Charity" had a dry spell lasting through Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush I, but otherwise has been used throughout American history.
We haven't heard about "diligence" since Woodrow Wilson, in 1914.
"Patience" has remained out of fashion since the Clinton years.
The only presidents since Calvin Coolidge to use the word "kindness" were the Bushes.
The last president to use the word "humility" was Bill Clinton, in 2000.

How curious.

If we total everything up, the sins have received 146 mentions, and the virtues 111. So much for accentuating the positive. But wait! "Pride" was mentioned far more often than any of the other qualities, good or bad. And though it's nominally a sin, the word is almost always used in a positive way.

So, what does all this tell us? Um, language is complicated?

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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