President Trump delivers his first State of the Union address tonight. Let’s briefly address the etymology of this term for a “formal speech.”
All dressed up in metaphor
In 1787, the US Constitution stipulated the president “from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
That second constitutional clause, “recommend to their consideration,” hints at the history of the term address. In the early 1600s, an address (e.g., Address to Throne) was in England a “formal approach to a sovereign,” especially one arguing in support of some matter or action.
This notion of an “approach” takes us yet further back, with an address denoting a “courteous approach” in the 16th century and now-obsolete “guidance and aid” in the late 1400s.
The verb address is even older, which the OED attests as early as 1325 for “to direct a written communication to a specific person or destination.” We can see how this sense anticipates later meanings of “directing one’s attention to” (1500s) and “delivering speeches” (1720s). We can also see how it looks ahead to the notion of a physical address, designating where one lives or a place is (1620s).
Etymologically, address the noun derives from address the verb, borrowed from the French adresser, which meant “to direct, guide, make straight.” Direct is a key word, as it comes from the same root, as we’ll see.
The French adresser ultimately joins the Latin ad, “towards,” and directiare, “direct”: “to set things straight.” Directiare became dresser in French, source of our noun and verb dress.
Dress the verb originally meant “to make up right” in the early 1300s. It evolved, especially in military contexts, into “preparing oneself” or “rigging oneself out,” which became “to array or outfit oneself.” By the 1600s, we have dress as “to put clothes on” and then dress as a word for that very clothing.
Behind directiare is Latin’s dirigere, fusing dis (“apart”) and regere (“to put straight, rule”), related to everything from rectitude to rectum—words which may variously characterize your feelings about Trump’s State of the Union address.