Obama’s hapaxes

by · Posted in: nerdiness

In his editorial on January 21, Nicholas Kristof points out that President Obama used the word "Muslim" for the first time in an inaugural address. The term for a word that occurs only once in a literature or a particular author is 'hapax legomenon' or simply hapax. It made me wonder what other words made their inaugural in this inaugural, so I dusted off the old Natural Language Toolkit and the corpus of presidential inaugural addresses to find out.

Here’s the list

afghanistan · alongside · apologize · badly · blame · campfires · cars · childish · coldest · cynics · data · digital · doers · dogmas · dollars · dust · emanates · expedience · firefighter · greed · grids · grievances · gross · grudgingly · guardians · helps · hindus · horizon · huddled · imagination · indicators · inducing · innocents · iraq · jews · justness · keepers · khe · leisure · levees · makers · measurable · muslim · muslims · nagging · network · normandy · nourish · outcome · outlast · packed · pat · please · pleasures · plowed · recriminations · restaurant · roll · rugged · sanh · sapping · segregation · selflessness · shifted · shortcuts · silencing · slaughtering · smoke · sow · specter · spin · stairway · stale · starting · starved · strangled · struggled · sweatshops · swill · takers · tanks · tasted · tempering · tides · tirelessly · toiled · towards · unclench · ushering · village · warming · waver · whip · whisper · wield

Alongside Muslim's debut (it occurs in both singular and plural), 'jews' and 'hindus' also made their first appearance.

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers.

Because of the way the Natural Language Toolkit tokenizes words it didn't catch 'non-believers' although it too is unique in this speech. In his 2001 inaugural Bush debuted synagogue and mosque.

Afghanistan and Iraq have left the company of the unnamed such as Belgium, Poland, and Canada to join with the often mentioned Spain and the Philippines (tied for first with 6 mentions), Cuba(5), Vietnam(3), England(3), China(2), France(2), Korea (2), Mexico (2), Panama (2), and these mentioned only once: Burma, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Russia, and Somalia.

Some words are simply variations. 'Cars' for example is here for the first time in the plural, but Bush used the singular in 1989 ushering in the age of the Hummer:

In our hearts we know what matters. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account.

Obama's use reminds us of the realities of such vehicular immoderation:

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

In another variation, "struggled," is introduced. Although "struggle" has been popular, occurring twenty times starting with Washington in 1789, it has been used almost exclusively as a noun (such as Kennedy's "a struggle against the common enemies of man"). Johnson introduced us to the verb in 1965 ("No longer need capitalist and worker, farmer and clerk, city and countryside, struggle to divide our bounty").

'Towards' makes the list although 'toward' is very common. Most references avoid a semantic distinction between the two although 'towards' makes my ears perk up a bit in such a formal setting. The American Heritage Book of English Usage attributes the distinction to a difference between British and English usage. I'm glad to see Obama offering this olive branch to our friends in England. Grey is my new favourite colour.

There are a few surprises too such as 'greed,' which until now has never been called by name.

In case you are wondering, the inaugural address with the fewest hapaxes is Washington's second address from 1793: "arrive" and "upbraidings." One might attribute this to being the least lexically original or the most frequently copied. The address with the most (by far) is William Henry Harrison's from 1841 with 224 unique words that were not used before and have not been heard since. It includes the only occurrence of 'guilt' and 'politician,' as well as gems like scipios, amendatory, scythia, curtii, and solecism; one can only imagine how it would play on a jumbotron.