How does history change the meaning of words?

President of the United States.

Impressive. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Mark Forsyth explained on TED Radio Hour. (Listen to him here.)

Congress chose “president” for the title of the highest office so the incumbent wouldn’t get high and mighty.

It was the title they gave you when you were elected the head of the cricket club. Not the head of state.


Yes. They play cricket. Really.

Yes. They play cricket. Really.


But just as language reshapes reality, reality reshapes language.

Once the USA became an important country, “President” became the important title.

And it’s happened before. Repeatedly. Some of our most vaunted titles have very humble origins.

King = “representative of the family” (“kin” + “ing”).

Chancellor = “doorman” (originally the ushers who sat at the chancellarii – the screen doors of Roman law courts).

Lord = “bread keeper” (literally “loaf ward”).

The importance of a title reflects the importance and power of the people who hold it over time. Which explains why American “CEO” has replaced British “Managing Director” as the prestigious title for the Big Cheese.

As we say, language shapes and then reshapes reality.