In Latin, president literally means “the one who sits before.”
Presidents’ Day, officially called Washington’s Birthday, has been a US federal holiday since 1879, honoring the country’s first president – and subsequent ones – around his date of birth, February 22. But where does the word president come from, and why, exactly, did the US settle on president for its commander-in-chief?
President has commanded English since the late 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first records it in 1382, when it named an “appointed governor or lieutenant of a province” or other such political division. The word quickly broadened to many of its modern senses, used for an “elected head of any gathering” by 1390, the “head of a religious college” by 1410, and the “head of a university” by 1448. The sense of the “head of a company” emerges later in the record, around the 1760s.
Sworn into English from French, president hails from the Latin praesidēns, “governor,” or “the presiding one.” Praesidēns is a noun form of praesidēre, “to act as head; command; stand guard; watch.” The verb literally means, though, “to sit before (in a position of authority).” Joining prae (before, in front of) and sidēre (to sit), praesidēre also ordered up preside and presidium in English.
An American original
By 1608, president specifically titled a chief magistrate of the British colonies in America. When delegates from the Thirteen Colonies gathered in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress in 1774, they designated the presiding officer the president, lexicographer Ben Zimmer tells us. The first president, here, was Virginia’s Peyton Randolph.
The framers of the US Constitution cribbed the title when they drafted Article Two: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” This inaugurated the use of president for “head of state.”
But upon George Washington’s election Congress intensely debated how they should address their new executive, who at this point had answered to General or Your Excellency. Historian Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon says the Senate originally felt president wasn’t sufficiently dignified. They suggested instead: Elective Majesty, Sacred Majesty, Elective Highness, Illustrious Highness, Serene Highness, and even His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.
The House, meanwhile, feared such titles were too monarchical, and pushed for, successfully, a then-humbler president. Since then, the word, and person of, president has no doubt gone on to sit front and center in our politics and culture.