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A Vocabulary Lesson From The Republican Presidential Debate


Donald Trump also used an unusual word during this week's Republican debate.


DONALD TRUMP: I say, not in a braggadocious way, I've made billions and billions of dollars dealing with people all over the world.

MONTAGNE: Braggadocious, and some of the other presidential contenders also had some choice words of their own. Ben Zimmer is executive editor of He's been keeping track of debate language. Good morning.

BEN ZIMMER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with braggadocious and its origins. It honestly sounds like something out of "Mary Poppins."

ZIMMER: (Laughter).

MONTAGNE: But I'm sure that's not where - (laughter) that's not where Donald Trump got it.

ZIMMER: No, no, I don't know where Trump got it from, but I was very glad he said it. So braggadocious, it's an adjective formed from the noun braggadocio, which can mean vain and empty boasting. In 1853, there was something in The Boston Investigator referring to a swaggering, braggadocious piece of egotism. So it was being used all the way back in the mid-19th century, and it's popped up from time to time since then. It still sounds like a very sort of funny, made-up word. And the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it's influenced by other words, like ferocious, precocious and atrocious, or that super-long word from "Mary Poppins," perhaps.

MONTAGNE: A kind of made-up word seems to apply to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who used the word toot, which is a word, but used it in a way that I certainly hadn't heard.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: The fact that she had a private email server in her basement, using national security secrets running through it, it could've been hacked by the Russians, the Chinese, or two 18-year-olds on a toot wanting to have some fun.

ZIMMER: What I think Governor Christie meant was that they were drunk, that you're imagining drunken teenagers who perhaps would be able to hack into Hillary Clinton's server. And this usage actually goes back a ways. Originally, toot could mean to drink copiously. And then toot became a noun to refer to a drunken spree. And so there are examples of on a toot or on the toot going all the way back 1891 in American slang. But again, yeah, it's a slang term that we don't come across very often these days. And that was certainly one of the more interesting usage examples that we could find from the debate.

MONTAGNE: All right, well, Ben, tell us what else made your list for maybe what we would call not-so-presidential use of language by the next possible president.

ZIMMER: Well, sure, I mean, there were other words that come out of slang, which we don't expect presidents or presidential candidates necessarily to use, like patsy, which Rand Paul used when he said, why are we always the world's patsies that we have to go over there and fight their wars for them. That's a bit of slang that also dates from the 19th century to refer to a pushover, somebody who is easily pushed around. And then we have gangster, you know, Marco Rubio using this word to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin, referring to him as a gangster in Moscow with all the slangy connotations that gangster carries with it, as well.

MONTAGNE: Linguist Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Thanks a lot.

ZIMMER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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