Tracking the Presidents’ Words

If you’re interested in nerdy speech algorithms (and who isn’t, am I right?), consider taking a look at Speech Wars, a web site that not only offers States of the Union and Inaugural Addresses going back to the beginning of the country, but also allows you to find out how frequently particular words have been used in those speeches.

For instance, as the Speech Wars creators mentioned to the Freakonomics guys this week, President Obama “is the first president in history to use the words ‘bailouts,’ ‘laundry,’ ‘drapes,’ ‘cyber,’ ‘messes,’ and ‘pandemic’ in a State of the Union address.” (Even though this wasn’t technically a SOTU.)

He’s the second to use “ferret.”

I played around with a few terms. According to the site, Gerald Ford is the last president to use the word “Christian” in a State of the Union (1976), while George W. Bush was the first to use “Muslim” (2007). This exposed a slight drawback to the site, though, because searching for “Moslem” actually produced two more hits — Rutherford Hayes (1880) and Jimmy Carter (1980).

Since President Obama created a bit of a flap by mentioning automobiles this year, I searched for that term and discovered that Teddy Roosevelt was the first to use it in its modern form (1907). And, wouldn’t you know, his words ring especially true today:

“No legislation can by any possibility guarantee the business community against the results of speculative folly any more than it can guarantee an individual against the results of his extravagance. When an individual mortgages his house to buy an automobile he invites disaster.”

(Hat tip: John Bailey)

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