Inaugural Americans

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In a comment on my post about relative word frequencies in the vice-presidential debate, Roo suggested that there's "a difference in mindset/strategy between conservative and liberal politicians", where conservatives tend to use "America" while liberals use "United States". While this was true in that debate, I'm not sure whether it's true in general. As a start towards addressing the question, I took a quick look at the frequency of words based on the morpheme America (e.g. America, American, Americans) in the repository of inaugural addresses at the American Presidency Project.

The results show an overall rising trend, but no clear conservative/liberal division (at least none that's clear to me):

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

The peak in 1797 is John Adams; the peak in 1841 is William Henry Harrison; the peak in 1921 is Warren G. Harding; the peak in 1973 is Richard Nixon; the all-time maximum in 1993 is William Jefferson Clinton. Presidents whose count was zero: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson.

The increase is partly (but I think not entirely) accounted for by a trend towards longer inaugurals.

Here are the counts I got:

Bush 2005 30
Bush 2001 20
Clinton 1997 31
Clinton 1993 33
Bush 1989 11
Reagan 1985 21
Reagan 1981 16
Carter 1977 5
Nixon 1973 23
Nixon 1969 10
Johnson 1965 10
Kennedy 1961 7
Eisenhower 1957 7
Eisenhower 1953 6
Truman 1949 4
Roosevelt 1945 2
Roosevelt 1941 12
Roosevelt 1937 5
Roosevelt 1933 2
Hoover 1929 13
Coolidge 1925 11
Harding 1921 24
Wilson 1917 4
Wilson 1913 0
Taft 1909 12
Roosevelt 1905 0
McKinley 1901 7
McKinley 1897 9
Cleveland 1893 9
Harrison 1889 6
Cleveland 1885 4
Garfield 1881 2
Hayes 1877 1
Grant 1873 0
Grant 1869 0
Lincoln 1865 1
Lincoln 1861 2
Buchanan 1857 3
Pierce 1853 2
Taylor 1849 2
Polk 1845 0
Harrison 1841 7
Van Buren 1837 2
Jackson 1833 2
Jackson 1829 0
Adams 1825 0
Monroe 1821 2
Monroe 1817 1
Madison 1813 1
Madison 1809 0
Jefferson 1805 1
Jefferson 1801 0
Adams 1797 8
Washington 1793 1
Washington 1789 2


  1. Jordan L Boyd-Graber said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 8:58 am

    William Henry Harrison is famous for giving a really long inaugural in the rain … and then dying shortly thereafter, so perhaps that would account for all the Americas. What would the graph look like if it were normalized for length?

    [(myl) The data is Out There — have at it!]

  2. Roo said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 9:20 am

    Oh! Unexpected.

    I'm glad to have piqued your interest, and thank you for doing this analysis. I'm going to have to watch more closely my impressions — although, I do wonder if inaugural addresses are a good sample. I feel like more "average" political speaking (debates, campaigning, et cetera) might yield different results, even though I know that's the same gut reaction as before.

    But as Colbert says, "I like a man that thinks with his gut!"

    [(myl) It might well be true that there's a relevant cultural difference in recent decades, with Bill Clinton working against the grain so as not to be out-America'ed. But we'd need a different source of data to check these ideas out.]

  3. Pablo said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    Interesting analysis. It would be interesting to see, how those with 0 mentions of America, mentioned the country if at all? Did they simply refer to "my friends, you, we?" or did they ignore the country it self and speak about loftier concepts?

    Also, a quick note, under the graph you say "The peak in 1897 is John Adams" and you clearly mean 1797.

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    There's certainly a striking increase if you compare 20th and 19th century inaugurals, from an average of 2.28 occurrences to an average of 10.28. Has the length of the addresses increased proportionally?

  5. Mark P said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 10:50 am

    Was it considered informal to refer to the US simply as "America" earlier in the country's history? If so, maybe that has changed, or maybe formal speeches have become more informal.

  6. Yuval said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 10:53 am

    What about the obvious "United States of America"? Will it not show in this analysis as well?

    Oh, and what Jordan said.

  7. Sergio said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 11:35 am

    Isn't looking at frequencies of words based on the morpheme "America" problematic since there isn't really a commonly used alternative to "American" or "Americans" as there is to "America"? It seems like all politicians would resort to American or Americans regardless of specific intent when referring to the citizenry. So including these terms doesn't seem to me to really get at the question of whether its possible to show a distinction in the manner politicians refer to the nation in a larger, historical sense. It actually seems unlikely to me that there would be such a difference, but I'd be interested in being wrong in this case.

  8. Amy de Buitléir said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    This topic has come up in discussions I've had with others about the (mis)use of "America" to mean only the USA. I have a slightly different view on it. My impression is that US citizens tend to use the name "America" when they are discussing patriotism, but U.S. or U.S.A. in most other situations.

    So, "I'm proud to be an American." sounds more natural to my ear than "I'm proud to be a U.S. citizen" (unless someone is referring to having gained citizenship after birth). But "I'm from the U.S." sounds a lot more natural than "I'm from America."

    If it is the underlying "rule", then I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear Republicans using "America" more often than Democrats, simply because Republicans seem to have a greater tendency to appeal to patriotism in their speeches.

  9. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

    I started using United States in preference to America to refer to the USA after traveling in Central America and discovering that people in other American countries resented our appropriation of the term. I would suggest that the real dividing line is not between liberal and conservative but between those who care about what people in the rest of the Americas think of us, and those who don't.

    Of course, despite the usual adaptability of English, we have not been able to adapt United States into a word meaning citizen of the United States. American is a less cumbersome term than U.S. citizen and sounds better in patriotic sentences. Other languages — notably Spanish — have managed to do this: Soy estadounidense.

    I do know people who say USian, but it's not a pretty word.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

    Pablo: It would be interesting to see, how those with 0 mentions of America, mentioned the country if at all? Did they simply refer to "my friends, you, we?" or did they ignore the country it self and speak about loftier concepts?

    You can follow the hyperlink in the body of the post and check for yourself! For example, Teddy Roosevelt, who used America and its derivatives not at all in his inaugural, began like this:

    My fellow-citizens,

    No people on earth have more cause to be thankful than ours, and this is said reverently, in no spirit of boastfulness in our own strength, but with gratitude to the Giver of Good who has blessed us with the conditions which have enabled us to achieve so large a measure of well-being and of happiness. To us as a people it has been granted to lay the foundations of our national life in a new continent.

    and went on in that vein for a thousand words, ending with

    We in our turn have an assured confidence that we shall be able to leave this heritage unwasted and enlarged to our children and our children's children. To do so we must show, not merely in great crises, but in the everyday affairs of life, the qualities of practical intelligence, of courage, of hardihood, and endurance, and above all the power of devotion to a lofty ideal, which made great the men who founded this Republic in the days of Washington, which made great the men who preserved this Republic in the days of Abraham Lincoln.

  11. Adam said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

    I've done a crude wordcount (just whitespace-delimited) and matches for United States and United States of America:

  12. hjaelmer said,

    October 9, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

    I used to always refer to my money as "U.S. money," to myself as "from the U.S.," etc. (and still do, usually), but some Canadian friends once asked me why I didn't just say "American."

    And @ Amy de Buitléir: You're forgetting the obscene chants of "U.S.A." at the Republican convention whenever anything belligerent was being proposed.

  13. GAC said,

    October 10, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

    @Nancy Jane Moore

    Oddly enough, I was going to try to prove that "norteamericano" is more common than "estadounidense", but indeed a Google search turns up more than twice as many hits for the latter than for the former (and Google News finds more than five times as many, which I expected, as I see "estadounidense" both as more formal and as more suited to political discussions). In any case, we could call ourselves "North Americans" and make the Canadians mad, or perhaps adopt "gringos" and get complaints that we're adopting a "derogatory" name (I dunno, I call myself a gringo in Spanish).

    But ultimately I accept that "America" and "American" don't really cover the same semantic space as Spanish "América" and "americano", so I justify it that way. Plus, I've been told "the United States" can be ambiguous because Mexico is "los Estados Unidos Mexicanos" ("The United Mexican States"), but I have never heard an objection to it "in the wild."

    Unfortunately, you still are one up on me on empirical knowledge, since I have yet to find my way to an actual Spanish-speaking country (or even into a big Hispanic region of the US).

  14. HBK said,

    October 10, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

    How does "Merkin" (the Southern phonetic version) translate into Spanish ?

  15. Alex said,

    October 11, 2008 @ 4:52 am

    Interestingly, I was copyediting some interviews for my school newspaper, and was noticing, while trying to enforce style for U.S. rather than US, that while Obama's representative ( uses U.S. several times, McCain's representative ( never does. I thought I also checked America and found that Obama's representative never used it while McCain's did, but this seems to be false. I guess this *might* be corroborating evidence…

  16. Mark P said,

    October 11, 2008 @ 10:43 am

    I have seen objections to Americans referring to themselves as "Americans" but it has a long enough history, and it doesn't appropriate anyone else's identity. As far as I know, there is no other country that has "America" in its name.

  17. GAC said,

    October 11, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    I definitely agree we don't need to change our habits here. But it's not the fact that the word "America" is in our name that gives us the right to call ourselves "American". It's still true that the two continents of the New World both have the name "America" in them. And while we'd probably use "the Americas", I do believe in Spanish they are still often collectively referred to as "América".

    So, is the name of our (self-named) nation more important than the names of the continents. Of course not, they're all just as arbitrary. It's just that we're used to calling ourselves Americans, and we understand it that way. As long as we're using it with some sort of superiority in the back of our minds, that works.

  18. Mark P said,

    October 11, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

    GAC, not to be argumentative, but I don't think the question of rights has to enter into it. As far as I know, the natives of no other country call themselves "Americans", so there is no ambiguity. I think the objections (if, indeed, there are any significant objections) arise from a dislike of Americans, not from any offense caused by the name itself.

  19. GAC said,

    October 11, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

    Perhaps I shouldn't have said anything about a "right". I tried to convey that I don't think we really need a "right" here, but it was hard to get that in there.

    In any case, I have no idea what the people who object to it have going through their heads, but I agree it's probably a colorful proxy for the stereotype of Americans as big-headed exceptionalists, just as a lot of usage complaints are used to illustrate stereotypes (like tying "ain't" and negative concord to a variety of presumably poorly educated social groups).

    I should shut up on this thread soon.

  20. baylink said,

    October 12, 2008 @ 8:11 am


    By geeks for geeks, but Y'all are welcome to borrow it.

    Back-formation from Canadians, I assume.

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