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Word Improvisation
by J. E. Lighter

Presidential Tattoo
Taking Notice of POTUS

Investigations of slang by the editor of the Random House Dictionary of American Slang
Discuss this feature in the Language forum of Post & Riposte.
CONGRESSIONAL hearings and presidential wranglings with a special prosecutor will continue for months over the various issues (campaign finance; Whitewater) that embroil the White House in matters of law, but already the proceedings have brought to light thousands of pages of mundane documents from the executive branch.

One curious revelation concerns the extent to which the acronym POTUS, meaning "President of the United States," has ascended into the realm of the workaday Washington vocabulary. In 1994 the White House deputy chief of staff, Harold M. Ickes, discussed who might be able to persuade Hillary Clinton to accept the need for a special prosecutor: "POTUS can't. Staff can't. Christopher to talk to FLOTUS." FLOTUS, of course, stands for "First Lady of the United States." A subsequent scheduling memorandum read "Requests potus and vpotus to meet with committee of 100 to discuss China relations. Also invites potus to Indonesia Culture Night." "Vpotus," obviously, is the Vice President.

POTUS certainly has a contemporary sound. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt (who began signing himself "FDR" at the age of nine) is said to have assumed the designation POTUS in his wartime correspondence with the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (Churchill, for his part, used the code name "Former Naval Person." Roosevelt and Churchill both jokingly referred to Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, as "UJ," for "Uncle Joe.") POTUS was adopted by the White House staff and the Secret Service; it was creatively employed as the pet name favored by Buffie, the lover of President Ericson, in the 1977 novel Full Disclosure, by William Safire, a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon. ("First-naming a President struck her as awkward and their intimacy made 'Mr. President' ludicrous.") In an age that offers an Internet site for almost everything, it should come as no surprise that something called POTUS can today be found on the Web (http://www.ipl.org/ref/POTUS/). It is a database of research on Presidents maintained by the University of Michigan.

Nancy Reagan has been credited with inspiring, if not originating, FLOTUS. In his comic novel The White House Mess (1986) Christopher Buckley, a speechwriter for VPOTUS George Bush, described an analogue to the "POTUS phone" that has existed in the White House since the Johnson Administration: a direct White House telephone link to a somewhat vindictive and domineering FLOTUS. In the novel President Thomas Nelson Tucker refers to his wife as "Flotus Blossom." Remember, it's only fiction.

As for First Lady itself, the term -- inspired by the nonspecific descriptive cliché "the first [that is, the foremost] lady in the land" -- was not a routine synonym for "the President's wife" until well into the current century. The Oxford English Dictionary fails to locate any example of First Lady before the Truman-Dewey campaign of 1948, although a book called First Ladies, by Kathleen Prindiville, about Presidents' wives, appeared in 1932. The term First Family, given wide prominence by the impressionist Vaughn Meader's 1962 comedy album of that name, is probably a contribution of the Kennedy years. Jacqueline Kennedy, an accomplished equestrian, once remarked, "The one thing I do not want to be called is First Lady. It sounds like a saddle horse." She was no doubt grateful to have escaped the CB-radio craze of the mid-1970s, which bestowed on Betty Ford, the wife of President Gerald R. Ford, the handle First Mama.

Alben W. Barkley, the Vice President during Harry Truman's second term, was the inaugural recipient of the nickname Veep, a term created perhaps as a conflation of the pedestrian vice-presidential abbreviation VP with VIP, meaning "very important person," the latter a usage that emerged before the Second World War. The passage of Veep into the mainstream of American English was surely eased by the prior existence of Jeep, the popular wartime military vehicle (whose name came from the Popeye comic strip in 1936). At least since 1980 the term Beep has been used in New York City to refer to each of the city's five BPs, or borough presidents. The term isn't quite onomatopoeic (a BP doesn't literally go beep), but it's somehow appropriate that the sound of New York traffic comes through.

There is as yet no acronym designating the Vice President's spouse. By extension, the wife of the Vice President, and therefore the Second Lady, should be known as SLOTUS. Considering that she is only a "heartbeat away from" full FLOTUS status, perhaps a better designation would be HAFFLOTUS.

Illustration by Tom Bloom
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; Taking Notice of POTUS; Volume 280, No. 4; page 120.

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