Issuing an etymological “executive order”

Executive, first found in Middle English, goes all the way back to Latin, but it’s not until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln that we see executive order

Since taking office, President Trump has issued eight executive orders. As his most controversial directive, the travel ban, goes to court, let’s go into the history of the word executive and the phrase executive order.

To the bitter end

For the word executive, the etymological buck stops at the Latin exsequī. This verb literally means “to follow out,” with the force of “to the very end.” It merges ex– (“out”) and sequī (“to follow”). The Ancient Romans used the verb for a host of operations, as we do in English today: to accomplish, carry out, enforce, and perform, among others.

(For more on the history of sequī, which is featured in words ranging from second to sue, see my post, Part 1 and Part 2, on this prolific root.)

During the 1200-1400s, English issued – or French, really – the various derivatives of exsequī. The first appears to be execution, then execute and executive. Early on, this ‘executive suite’ took immediately to legal usage, variously naming the action of putting laws and judicial sentences into effect – including capital punishment.

The Oxford English Dictionary finds evidence for the ‘put-to-death’ execution as early as 1360. This specific meaning emerges, most likely, both from execution’s sense of “carrying out a law or sentence” and its etymological sense of “pursuing to the end.” Indeed, exsequī could also mean “to follow (a corpse) to the grave,” hence exequies, or “funeral rites.”

Big heads

In contrast to legislative and judicial, executive has described government (e.g., “executive power”) since the 1640s and has stood in, as a noun, for the governmental branch since the 1790s (“the executive”). The chief American executive – the president as such – emerges in the writings of the Founding Fathers, perhaps as first applied by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. The business executive emerges by 1902. 

Firsts in command

As for executive order? It doesn’t appear in the US Constitution. But the phrases “executive authority” and “executive power” do, the provenance of executive orders. He didn’t use the term, but George Washington issued the first now-called executive order on June 8, 1789, requesting the department heads (viz. Articles of Confederation):

impress [him] with a full, precise, and distinct general idea of the affairs of the United States, so far as they are comprehended in, or connected with that Department.

The particular use of order appears to date back to directives issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 from the Executive Mansion, as the White House was called until Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. (The White House, while not then in official use, dates back to 1811.)

On January 27, 1862, Abraham Lincoln:

Ordered, That the 22d day of February, 1862, be the day for a general movement of the land and naval forces of the United States against the insurgent forces…That the heads of Departments…will severally be held to their strict and full responsibilities for prompt execution of this order.

And five days earlier, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, signed off on a document concerning “President’s War Order No. 1” with “By the order of the President.” Over the following years, the specific phrase executive order had settled in.

Lincoln executive order 1.jpg
A holograph manuscript of Lincoln’s General War Order No. 1. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Executive decisions

Let’s wrap up all these words with some numbers. If Trump truly wants to be “big league,” he’s got some serious competition when it comes to executive orders. No, no, Obama doesn’t even come close: At 276 orders, he comes in at 15 under George W. Bush – and a 105 under Reagan.

But no one begins to touch Franklin Roosevelt, who executed a whopping 3,522 orders, beating out his closest contender, Woodrow Wilson, by over 1700. 

m ∫ r ∫


5 thoughts on “Issuing an etymological “executive order”

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