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US election word of the week: POTUS

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 © PhotoDiscOur series looking at some of the language and terminology associated with the US electoral process is coming to an end. As election day approaches we look at one of the familiar names given to the President, POTUS.

My first encounter with the term POTUS as a nickname for the President of the United States was in the very first episode of the TV series The West Wing. Fans of the show may remember how in that episode newly-elected President Jed Bartlet sprains his ankle as a result of crashing his bike into a tree, causing much mirth amongst the press. The acronym, whose friendly informality seems to humanize both the man and the office, is older than you might think. According to the World Wide Words website, POTUS has its origins in a kind of shorthand code devised by one Walter P Phillips, a former journalist and telegraph operator who became General Manager of the United Press Association. The first recorded use of POTUS in print was in 1895, making it one of the earliest known acronyms.

The current POTUS uses the term as his Twitter handle, while FLOTUS Michelle Obama uses @FLOTUS as hers. FLOTUS is a much more recent coinage, first referred to publicly in the 1980s as being the Secret Service codename for Nancy Reagan.

We will find out next week whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is to be the 45th POTUS. If Trump wins, his wife Melania will become FLOTUS, but what if Clinton wins? Bill Clinton will be the consort of the first female President of the US but he will be the first who isn’t First Lady. Various suggestions have been made about what he might be called, including First Husband, First Gentleman and even First Dude. Bill Clinton himself has apparently suggested First Volunteer; but that won’t make a very good acronym.

Look out for the final post in this series. You can find past posts on the language of American politics here and here, or search for other posts in this series using the tag US politics.

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Liz Potter

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