Click on any phrase to play the video at that point.Close
One of my favorite words in the whole of the Oxford English Dictionary is "snollygoster." Just because it sounds so good. And what snollygoster means is "a dishonest politician." Although there was a 19th-century newspaper editor who defined it rather better when he said, "A snollygoster is a fellow who seeks office regardless of party, platform or principle, and who, when he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnancy."
Now I have no idea what "talknophical" is. Something to do with words, I assume. But it's very important that words are at the center of politics, and all politicians know they have to try and control language.
It wasn't until, for example, 1771 that the British Parliament allowed newspapers to report the exact words that were said in the debating chamber. And this was actually all down to the bravery of a guy with the extraordinary name of Brass Crosby, who took on Parliament. And he was thrown into the Tower of London and imprisoned, but he was brave enough, he was brave enough to take them on, and in the end he had such popular support in London that he won. And it was only a few years later that we have the first recorded use of the phrase "as bold as brass." Most people think that's down to the metal. It's not. It's down to a campaigner for the freedom of the press.
But to really show you how words and politics interact, 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?
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 Washington. Not that catchy. Some people just wanted to call him King. They thought it was tried and tested. And they weren't even being monarchical there, they had the idea that you could be elected King for a fixed term. And, you know, it could have worked.
And everybody got insanely bored, actually, because this debate went on for three weeks. 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, 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?
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 from a decent respect for the opinions and practice of civilized nations, whether under republican or monarchical forms of government, whose custom it is to annex, through the office of the Chief Magistrate, titles of respectability -- not bloody President -- and that in the intercourse with foreign nations, the majesty of the people of the United States may not be hazarded by an appearance of singularity, i.e., we don't want to look like bloody weirdos.
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. Barack Obama, President Obama, is there on borrowed time, just waiting for the Senate to spring into action. Second thing you can learn is that when a government says that this is a temporary measure -- (Laughter) -- 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? Something to do with the slightly over 5,000 nuclear warheads he has at his disposal and the largest economy in the world and a fleet of drones and all that sort of stuff. Reality and history have endowed that title with grandeur. And so the Senate won in the end. They got their title of respectability. And also, the Senate's other worry, the appearance of singularity -- well, it was a singularity back then. But now, do you know how many nations have a president? A hundred and forty-seven. All because they want to sound like the guy who's got the 5,000 nuclear warheads, etc.
And so, in the end, the Senate won and the House of Representatives lost, because nobody's going to feel that humble when they're told that they are now the President of the United States of America. 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.
You can share this video by copying this HTML to your clipboard and pasting into your blog or web page.
need to get the latest Flash player.
Got an idea, question, or debate inspired by this talk? Start a TED Conversation.
Most politicians choose their words carefully, to shape the reality they hope to create. But does it work? Etymologist Mark Forsyth shares a few entertaining word-origin stories from British and American history (for instance, did you ever wonder how George Washington became "president"?) and draws a surprising conclusion. (From TEDxHousesofParliament in London)
Mark Forsyth strolls through the English language, telling stories, making connections and banishing hobgoblins. Full bio »