Sunday, February 13, 2005

Language Lesson

I ran across the inappropriate use of a term today that always bothers me. It was "bully pulpit," in its usual use of "The President should use his bully pulpit to argue for more...." That's not at all what the term really means. As the link shows, Roosevelt used the word "bully" in the same way we'd say "excellent" or "wonderful." As in "President Bush said that being president offered him an excellent pulpit from which to talk about the nation's problems." You really have to hear a recording of Teddy to appreciate the way he said "bully." Huge, robust, forceful, full of energy and optimism.

Why the term has slipped in its meaning is, to me, a study in the deformation of language reflecting both the mishearing of history and the motives of those using it. It says a lot about human nature that it sounds so natural to expect that presidents would use the "power" of their office to browbeat opponents. Or anyone with a pulpit, or podium from which to speak.

Presidents were never intended to have the kind of imperial power they have today. Washington fought hard to stop those of his day who wanted to infuse the office of the President with kingly majesty. It's the inherent heirarchical nature of humans, the urge to look for leaders, for alpha males and females, that must always be fought against in a democratic society. In our representative democratic society, there are no kings; every man and woman is equal in opportunity and rises to the level of their character and determination. Always? No. Mostly? Yes.

But there will be those who succumb, who want to give some of their power to another. Who want bullies and pulpits for the good of us all.

Why do we play "Hail to the Chief" when the President enters the room? Because a fretful wife of a mid-19th century president feared her husband wouldn't be noticed when he walked in. She wanted the room to quiet and all attention to focus on her husband. So she requested that a fanfare be played. Like they did in Europe when the monarch entered the room.

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