11 Words and Phrases Popularized by Teddy Roosevelt

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Contrary to his well-known slogan “speak softly and carry a big stick,” Theodore Roosevelt—who passed away on January 6, 1919—was hardly one to speak softly. Here are some words and phrases coined or popularized by T.R. that remain in use to this day, along with a few that didn’t make it past the twenties.

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1. NAILING JELLY TO THE WALL

Definition: An impossible task.

“Somebody asked me why I did not get an agreement with Columbia. They may just as well ask me why I do not nail cranberry jelly to the wall.” —TR, 1912.

2. WHITE-CAPPER

Definition: A vigilante.

“The law-breaker, whether he be lyncher or white-capper… must be made to feel that the Republican party is against him.” —TR, 1896.

3. NATURE-FAKER

Definition: One who knowingly promotes humanized and/or exaggerated ideas about animal behavior.

“[The] ‘nature-faker’ is of course an object of derision to every scientist worthy of the name, to every real lover of the wilderness, to every true hunter or nature lover.” —TR, 1907. (He even hurled this charge against renowned author Jack London.)

4. WEASEL WORDS

Definition: Soft and ambiguous language.

“One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called ‘weasel words.’ When a weasel sucks eggs, the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a ‘weasel word’ after another, there is nothing left of the other.” –TR, 1916. (According to a 1916 article in The New York Times, Roosevelt was accused of plagiarizing the term, which appeared in The Century Magazine in 1900. Roosevelt said he heard it from a friend years earlier.)

5. SQUARE DEAL

Definition: A fair arrangement.

“The labor unions shall have a square deal, and the corporations shall have a square deal.” —TR, 1903.

6. MOLLYCODDLE

Definition: Weak and cowardly.

“The Mollycoddle vote [consists of] the people who are soft physically and morally, or have a twist in them which makes them acidly cantankerous and unpleasant.” —TR, 1913. (He also used this word to unflatteringly describe the game of baseball, which he didn’t care for… although he famously stepped in to save American football.)

7. STRONG AS A BULL MOOSE

Definition: To sport immense and formidable strength.

“I am as strong as a Bull Moose and you can use me to the limit.” —TR, 1900. (He coined this phrase after he received the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential nomination.)

8. MUCKRAKER

Definition: A journalist who searches for dishonorable aims and tactics used by public figures.

“The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.” —TR, 1906. (The phrase was modified from a character in John Bunyan’s novel Pilgrim’s Progress.)

9. HAT IN THE RING

Definition: One’s campaign has officially begun.

“My hat is in the ring, the fight’s on.” —TR, 1912. (Roosevelt said this when asked if he’d be running for president again that year.)

10. PUSSYFOOTING

Definition: To refrain from commitment.

“I think they are inclined to pussy-foot, and it is worse than useless for them to nominate me, unless they are prepared for an entirely straightforward and open campaign.” —TR, 1916. (While Roosevelt helped popularize the word, it had appeared in print as early as 1893. This was Roosevelt's response when asked about his odds of again becoming the Republican presidential nominee.)

11. BULLY PULPIT

Definition: A position noticeable enough to provide an opportunity to speak out and be heard.

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” —TR, 1909. (“Bully”—one of Roosevelt’s favorite exclamations—means “grand” or “excellent.”)

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The Arlington National Cemetery Just Opened Its Time Capsule from 1915—See What’s Inside

That red ribbon is the literal "red tape" that we now use as an idiom to describe bureaucratic processes.
That red ribbon is the literal "red tape" that we now use as an idiom to describe bureaucratic processes.
Arlington National Cemetery, YouTube

In the decades following the Civil War, thousands of people assembled in Arlington National Cemetery’s James R. Tanner Amphitheater to honor the fallen soldiers each May on Decoration Day (which we now call Memorial Day). By the early 20th century, the event had grown so popular that Congress agreed to build a new, larger arena in its place: the Memorial Amphitheater.

When President Woodrow Wilson laid the cornerstone on October 13, 1915, it contained a copper box with documents and mementos that captured the spirit of the era. Though the contents weren’t kept a secret, you can now actually see them for yourself—on May 15, 2020, Arlington National Cemetery celebrated the centennial of the amphitheater’s dedication ceremony by opening the time capsule and displaying them in a virtual exhibit.

Inside the box was one of each coin used in 1915; uncirculated stamps bearing images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin; an autographed photo of Wilson; a Bible signed by amphitheater architect Thomas Hastings; the dedication ceremony program; directories of both Congress and Washington D.C. residents; Civil War veterans’ pamphlets; four issues of local newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Washington Times; copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; an American flag; and a map of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s blueprints for building the city.

As Smithsonian.com reports, a few of those documents became outdated soon after being sealed in the box. The 1915 version of the Constitution had 17 amendments, but two new ones had been passed by the end of 1920: the 18th, prohibiting alcohol, and the 19th, giving women the right to vote. The American flag, on the other hand, was already inaccurate when it went into the time capsule. Though Arizona and New Mexico had both been annexed in 1912, bringing the state total to 48, the flag only included 46 stars.

Some of the items were wrapped in red tape, a seemingly insignificant detail that Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero found especially exciting.

“All of the records in the National Archives, when they were moved into that building, were carefully protected with wrappings that were held together with this red tape,” he said in a statement. “This is where the saying comes (from) about cutting through the red tape. It is actually—literally—the red tape.”

For the last few decades, the copper box shared its hollow cornerstone abode with another, less official time capsule: A Peter Pan-brand peanut butter jar, stuffed with business cards and other notes. The box had been relocated to the National Archives while the amphitheater underwent repairs in 1974, and the workers snuck the jar into the hollow when replacing it during the 1990s.

“It was sort of a rush job,” conservator Caitlin Smith told The Washington Post. “But you can understand the impulse to add your name to history.”

You can learn more about the history of the Memorial Amphitheater and discover more about the exhibit here.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]