30 Unusual Presidential Nicknames—And How They Were Acquired

From the obscure (“American Fabius”) to the sports-related (“Barry O’Bomber”), presidential nicknames have arisen from the leaders’ actions, ethics, and sometimes bad luck.
Martin Van Buren’s nickname wasn’t a compliment.
Martin Van Buren’s nickname wasn’t a compliment. / Mathew Brady/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (Van Buren), mikroman6/Moment/Getty Images (speech bubble), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background pattern)

From Old Granny to Uncle Jumbo, and His Accidency to Grandfather’s Hat, presidential nicknames are often witty and occasionally accurate. Here are a few of the most colorful nicknames—and how the commanders in chief came by them.

1. George Washington: American Fabius

George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon
A marble bust of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon. / Barney Burstein/GettyImages

Our first commander in chief earned this nickname based on the strategy he used to fight the British in the Revolutionary War, named for a Roman dictator who avoided large battles to engage in small ones. (But Washington might not have even known about that general and his strategy until a year after he began using it.) Another great nickname: Sword of the Revolution.

2. John Adams: Old Sink or Swim

John Adams
John “Old Sink or Swim” Adams. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

John Adams got this nickname from a speech he gave: “Sink or swim, survive or perish with my country, is my unalterable determination.”

3. Thomas Jefferson: Long Tom

'Thomas Jefferson', 1805. Artist: Rembrandt Peale
An 1805 portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale. / Print Collector/GettyImages

At 6 feet 2.5 inches, Jefferson was six inches taller than the average height for men in his day, which earned him the nickname “Long Tom.”

4. James Monroe: Last of the Cocked Hats

James Monroe by Asher Brown Durand
An etching of James Monroe by Asher B. Durand / Historical Picture Archive/GettyImages

The man behind the Monroe Doctrine was the last of the major politicians of his day to have fought in the Revolutionary War, during which the American fighters apparently wore cocked hats. 

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5. John Quincy Adams: Old Man Eloquent

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams / Fine Art/GettyImages

The second Adams to hold the office of president got the nickname during his time as a congressman, for “his passionate support of freedom of speech and universal education, and especially for his strong arguments against slavery.”

6. Andrew Jackson: Sharp Knife

Andrew Jackson by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl
A portrait of Andrew Jackson by Ralph Earl. / Fine Art/GettyImages

Creek leaders bestowed this nickname on Andrew Jackson for his fighting tactics. His better known nickname, Old Hickory, came from Jackson’s willingness to suffer in battle alongside his troops.

7. Van Buren: Machiavellian Belshazzar

Martin Van Buren
President Martin Van Buren / Heritage Images/GettyImages

This moniker was not a compliment: It was given to Van Buren by his detractors for his insincerity in political matters.

8. William Henry Harrison: Old Granny

William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The “Granny” nickname got thrown around a lot back in the day. In Harrison’s case, Democrat detractors—including Van Buren—gave the 68-year-old this nickname to get across the idea that he was both ancient and out of touch. He came down with a cold three weeks after his inauguration; it turned into pneumonia and pleurisy, and he died soon after. Harrison was the first president to die in office.

9. John Tyler: His Accidency 

Portrait of John Tyler by George Peter Alexander Healy
A portrait of John Tyler by George Peter Alexander Healy. / Fine Art/GettyImages

John Tyler was Harrison’s VP, and got this nickname when he became president after Harrison’s death.

10. James Polk: Young Hickory

James K Polk 11th President Of The United States Of America (1901)
An illustration of James K. Polk / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Both Polk and his father were strong supporters of Andrew Jackson; in fact, the younger Polk was Jackson’s best ally in Congress. Jackson was Old Hickory, and Polk became Young Hickory. Polk was also nicknamed Napoleon of the Stump for his fierce oratory.

11. Zachary Taylor: Old Rough and Ready

Zachary Taylor
Untitled (Zachary Taylor / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Though he was a general, this military hero was more than willing to share the hardships of field duty with his troops, a fact that earned him his nickname.

12. Millard Fillmore: Wool Carder President

Millard Fillmore
President Millard Fillmore. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

After Taylor died in office, Fillmore took over. Born in a Cayuga County, New York log cabin in 1800, Fillmore was apprenticed to a wool carder when he was 15—hence his nickname.

13. Franklin Pierce: Purse

Franklin Pierce by George P.A. Healy
A portrait of Franklin Pierce by George P.A. Healy. / Fine Art/GettyImages

The nickname Handsome Frank is self-explanatory, but sources don’t quite agree on why some called Pierce “Purse.” According to one source, it was a nickname given to him by his friends; another posits it might have been because of his wealth; and yet another says it was because of his involvement in the Gadsden Purchase, in which the U.S. bought land from Mexico that eventually became parts of present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Still others say the president pronounced Pierce that way.

14. James Buchanan: Ten-Cent Jimmy

James Buchanan
James Buchanan / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The bachelor president got this unflattering nickname after he said that 10 cents a day was a fair wage for manual laborers. What a gaffe.

15. Abraham Lincoln: Grand Wrestler

Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy
Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy. / Francis G. Mayer/GettyImages

Did you know that Honest Abe was a wrestler? He’s even been inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame.

16. Andrew Johnson: Sir Veto

Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Johnson, who took over as president after Lincoln was assassinated, came by this nickname for his use of that privilege in those tumultuous years. He was also called the Tennessee Tailor because of his former profession. Another nickname whose source proves elusive: Daddy of the Baby.

17. Ulysses S. Grant: Unconditional Surrender Grant

Ulysses S. Grant Wearing Military Uniform
Ulysses S. Grant wearing a military uniform. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Young Hiram Ulysses Grant (he dropped his first name and added the S. later, and it stood for nothing at all) was reportedly nicknamed “Useless” by his father. Ouch. His nicknames got better during the Civil War. After capturing Fort Donelson in Tennessee in 1862, he was called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Another awesome nickname: Great Hammerer.

18. Rutherford B. Hayes: His Fraudulency

Rutherford B Hayes
Rutherford B. Hayes. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

So nicknamed because he allegedly stole the campaign of 1876.

19. James A. Garfield: Canal Boy

James Abram Garfield
James Abram Garfield / Print Collector/GettyImages

Like Fillmore and Johnson, Garfield got his nickname thanks to an old job: He ran away from home when he was 16 to work on the canal boats that took cargo from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. He wasn’t very good at it, though; during the six weeks he worked on the boats, he fell overboard 14 times and eventually contracted a fever and had to return home.

20. Chester A. Arthur: Dude President

19th-Century American Caricature of Chester Arthur
A 19th-century caricature of Chester Arthur. / Historical Picture Archive/GettyImages

Sometimes called America’s First Gentleman, Chester A. Arthur got another nickname, Dude President, because of his sense of style.

21. Stephen Grover Cleveland: Uncle Jumbo

Grover Cleveland by Eastman Johnson
A portrait of Grover Cleveland by Eastman Johnson. / Fine Art/GettyImages

The only president to serve two non-consecutive terms weighed 250 pounds, so it’s no wonder that he earned the nickname Uncle Jumbo when he became governor of New York in 1882 (his friends also called him Big Steve). Another nickname, bestowed upon him by the New York Sun, was Stuffed Prophet.

22. Benjamin Harrison: Grandfather’s Hat

Benjamin Harrison
Benjamin Harrison / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison; he was also rather short, standing 5 feet 6 inches tall. Though he tried to distance himself from his grandfather, Harrison didn’t succeed. He reportedly got the nickname “Grandfather’s Hat” because Democratic cartoonists often drew him standing next to a huge version of his grandfather’s beaver hat (or wearing it) and also because Republicans campaigned for him with a song called “Grandfather’s Hat Fits Ben.”

23. William McKinley: Wobbly Willie

President William McKinley Working at Desk
President William McKinley working at his desk. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

McKinley earned this nickname for his reluctance to enter into a war with Spain in 1898 over Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy, said that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”

24. Theodore Roosevelt: Telescope Teddy

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt. / Historical/GettyImages

This “speak softly and carry a big stick” president got this nickname because, when out west in 1900, he had all of his rifles fitted with small telescopes for long-distance shooting to augment his very thick glasses.

25. Woodrow Wilson: Coiner of Weasel Words

Candidate Wilson Speaking in Union Square
Presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson speaking in Union Square. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

This nickname was reportedly given to Wilson by Teddy Roosevelt in a speech.

26. John Calvin Coolidge: Silent Cal

Calvin Coolidge Seated at Desk
Calvin Coolidge seated at his desk. / George Rinhart/GettyImages

Turns out our 30th president was a pretty quiet guy. Someone once said he spoke so infrequently that “every time he opened his mouth, a moth flew out.”

27. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Sphinx

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt / Library of Congress/GettyImages

By December 1939, FDR was being called The Sphinx by reporters and cartoonists because of his penchant for secrecy about whether he would run for a third term in 1940. At the annual Gridiron Dinner for White House correspondents on December 9, 1939, the president was presented with an 8-foot tall Sphinx statue in his likeness. It was designed by James D. Preston, assistant administrative secretary of the National Archives and former superintendent of the Senate press gallery, based on caricatures by cartoonists Peter Brandt of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and James T. Berryman of the Washington Star. You can see the Sphinx in the FDR Presidential Library.

Another great nickname for FDR: Houdini in the White House.

28. Ronald Reagan: Teflon President

Reagans at First Inauguration
Ronald and Nancy Reagan at his first presidential inauguration. / Historical/GettyImages

A nickname bestowed upon Reagan by Patricia Schroeder, a Democratic congresswoman from Colorado. “I got the idea of calling President Reagan the ‘Teflon president’ while fixing eggs for my kids,” she wrote in in 2004. “He had a Teflon coat like the pan.”

29. George W. Bush: Shrub

George W. Bush, Barbara Bush, George H.W. Bush
George W. Bush (left) with his parents at a baseball game. / Rich Pilling/GettyImages

A nickname given to the president by liberal columnist Molly Ivins, who went to high school with him.

30. Barack Obama: Barry O’Bomber

Barack Obama Playing Basketball In High School
Barack Obama playing basketball in high school. / Laura S. L. Kong/GettyImages

This nickname was given to No. 43 by his high school basketball crew for his jump shot.

A version of this story was published in 2017; it has been updated for 2024.