Far Left Etymologism

Scott Gardner

It’s been a while since I lived in the USA, long enough that sometimes when I’m feeling inundated with curious questions about my national origins I will spit out the phonetically similar but wildly inaccurate “USJ” (Universal Studios Japan). And in fact, there are times, especially when I’m reading about American politics online, that I feel such a response isn’t far off the mark. I realize that our conditioned Internet “ten seconds and click” behavior has forced news sites to be sensationalist, but then hey, it was politicians who claimed to have invented the Internet anyway, right? So it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. Which hyperbolized first: the politicians, or the news about them?

The Internet has changed the news reporting landscape in other ways as well. Media words for describing American political institutions have all been abbreviated, for one thing. I remember seeing the word “POTUS” for the first time online, thinking it was a new brand of freeze-dried French fries. But with a little context, I was able to figure out that it was an acronym for “President of the United States.” Not long afterward I was confronted with “FLOTUS”—not a line of colorful children’s life preservers as I had thought, but rather the President’s wife, the First Lady.

Then came “SCOTUS” (Supreme Court of the US). This discovery came as a blow because for a while in the 90s, I’d had this exact word in mind as a name for the stadium-blasting alt-metal band I was hoping to form someday. It had a sinister, poisonous bug sound to it, with a Latinate suffix that seemed ancient and undead. The only thing stopping me using the name was the small matter of not having a band yet. Good thing, too, I guess, since by now the band would have been the subject of endless online confusion with the ancient, Latinate, undead Supreme Court.

I had thought these acronyms were invented by the Internet, but an article in the New York Times told me that the terms POTUS and FLOTUS were being bandied about by political operatives as early as the 1960s. The article said such acronyms were first used by the Secret Service for transmitting coded location updates: “Where’s the POTUS?” “He’s on the TOTUS.” “Roger that!” Whether this is true or not, there’s no doubt that speed-texted Internet communication has helped popularize these terms. Never mind that “Bush” takes fewer keystrokes (and caps locks) than “POTUS”; sometimes it’s preferable not to mention certain commanders-in-chief by name.

Missing from this collection of acronyms is one for the most powerful political body in the United States, perhaps in the world: The huge collection of senators and representatives called Congress. There doesn’t seem to be a COTUS. Actually, there is, if you Google it. One prominent offering is “Center of the Universe Syndrome,” and a more apt term for the American Congress could not possibly exist. Another is the “Constitution of the United States,” the nation-building document that inspires awe in all Congress members, even as they spend most of their time trying to make changes to it. 

But no one has found an acronym for the American Congress that sticks. Maybe the word “Congress” itself is quick, plain, and explanatory enough. (Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke, “‘Pro’ is to ‘con’ as ‘progress’ is to....”) I imagine that the main reason Congress prefers not to use its most obvious, Secret-Service-inspired acronym is that every time it shuts down the government, critics would claim “COTUS Interruptus!” That doesn’t look good on your voting record.

One last point I’d like to make is that, contrary to appearances, this column has not devolved into a place for political screeds harping on the United States government’s sense of its own self-importance, or its general boorishness and ineptitude in domestic and foreign affairs. I have simply presented a thoughtful piece on modern American political acronyms that may be of interest to teachers of young, socially responsible university students (TOYSRUS) or anyone else who sees the obvious pedagogical merits English political lingo enjoys as scholastic entertainment (STOPMEPLEASE).