A few words on a word that gets misused


"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

— Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride"

Inigo Montoya was referring to "inconceivable" — a recurring gag throughout the hit movie of 1987. But he could have been reacting to a word that is increasingly misused in political commentary these days.

This wouldn't be the kind of topic appropriate for an editorial — the collective view of the newspaper's editorial board — because it's not an important matter of public policy. It's just a word.

But this is a column, reflecting only my opinion, and I find this particular misuse of a word increasingly irritating, so I'm going to use this opportunity to set the record straight. You might say I'm taking advantage of the "bully pulpit" this column provides.

Discerning readers might see what I did there: used the well-worn phrase "bully pulpit" correctly.

I'm not bullying anyone by calling my column a bully pulpit, because "bully," in this context, has nothing to do with intimidating others through force, which is what most people these days think of when they hear the word.

The phrase was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was fond of using the word "bully" to mean "terrific" or "wonderful," as in "bully for you!" One evening in his library, as he was reading to several guests a passage from his latest message to the American people, he remarked, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

In his "Political Dictionary," William Safire defines the bully pulpit as “active use of the president’s prestige and high visibility to inspire or moralize.”

All those who think President Donald Trump is using his office in that way, raise your hands.

What irks me is how many people who ought to know better are writing that Trump is "using his bully pulpit" when he trashes a political opponent or calls his critics belittling names in a tweet.

You want to call the president a bully? Be my guest. But please, don't misquote Teddy Roosevelt in the process.

— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at gnelson@mailtribune.com.

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