Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Richard Lederer

 

In the 1830s, in New England, there was a craze for initialisms, in the manner of FYI, PDQ, OMG and TGIF, so popular today. The fad went so far as to generate letter combinations of intentionally comic misspellings: KG for “know go,” KY for “know yuse,” NSMJ for “’nough said ‘mong jentlemen” and OR for “oll rong.” OK for “Oll Korrect” naturally followed.

Of all those loopy initialisms and facetious misspellings OK alone survived. That’s because of a presidential nickname that consolidated the letters in the national memory. Martin Van Buren, elected our 8th president in 1836, was born in Kinderhook, NY, and, early in his political career, was dubbed “Old Kinderhook.” Echoing the “Oll Korrect” initialism, OK became the rallying cry of the Old Kinderhook Club, a Democratic organization supporting Van Buren during the 1840 campaign. Thus, the accident of Van Buren’s birthplace rescued OK from the dustbin of history.

The coinage did Van Buren no good, and he was defeated in his bid for reelection. But the word honoring his nickname today remains what H. L. Mencken identified as “the most shining and successful Americanism ever invented.”

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Mothers and grandmothers sewed stuffed bears before President Theodore Roosevelt came along, but no one called them teddy bears. Not until November 1902, when Roosevelt went to Smedes, Miss., where he was acting as adjudicator for a border dispute between Louisiana and Mississippi.

On November 14, during a break in the negotiations, he was invited by southern friends to go bear hunting. Roosevelt felt that he could consolidate his support in the South by appearing there in the relaxed atmosphere of a hunting party, so he accepted the invitation.

During the hunt, Roosevelt’s hosts cornered a bear cub, and a guide roped it to a tree for the president to kill. Roosevelt declined to shoot the cub, believing such an act to be beneath his dignity as a hunter and as a man: “If I shot that little fellow, I wouldn’t be able to look my boys in the face again.”

That Sunday’s Washington Post carried a cartoon, drawn by artist Clifford Berryman. T.R. stood in hunting gear, rifle in hand and his back toward the cowering cub. The caption read, “Drawing the line in Mississippi,” referring both to the border dispute and to animal ethics.

Now the story switches to the wilds of Brooklyn, N.Y. There Russian immigrants Morris and Rose Michtom owned a candy store where they sold refreshments, novelties, and toys, including handmade stuffed animals. Inspired by Berryman’s cartoon, Rose Michtom created a toy bear and displayed it in the shop window. The bear proved popular with the public.

The Michtoms sent President Roosevelt the very bear they had put in their window. They said it was meant for Roosevelt’s grandchildren and asked T.R. for permission to name the bear after him. The president replied, “I don’t know what my name may mean to the bear business, but you’re welcome to use it.”

Well, T.R.’s name turned out to do a lot for the bear business. Rose and Morris began turning out stuffed cubs labeled Teddy’s bear, in honor of our 26th president, and business boomed. As the demand increased, the family hired extra seamstresses and rented a warehouse. Their operation eventually became the Ideal Toy Corporation.

The bear was a prominent emblem in Roosevelt’s successful 1904 election campaign, and Teddy’s bear was enshrined in dictionaries in 1907. Cartoonist Berryman never sought compensation for the use of the cub he had illustrated. He simply smiled and said, “I have made thousands of children happy. That is enough for me.”

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Speaking of presidents, you are reading a column written by a man whose daughter was fired on national television 11 years ago by an American president. Yep, back in 2009 my daughter, Annie Duke, then the winningest woman in the history of poker, was a contestant on NBC’s reality show “Celebrity Apprentice.” On the last day of the season, when the apprentices had been winnowed from 16 to two, then-emcee Donald Trump fired my daughter in favor of the winner, the late comedienne Joan Rivers.