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?
In what many are calling a last-ditch effort to shake up the campaign, this week Ted Cruz announced former Republican presidential candidate and Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential nominee should he win his party’s nomination.
For many, Cruz’s pick is raising lots of questions, given that it’s now mathematically impossible for him to win the nomination outright. But there’s one big question whose answer I’d really like to know: What is the vice in vice president?
The many virtues of vice
We often poke fun of the second-place office, but the vice presidency is an important one: It’s a heartbeat away from the presidency, as candidates consider when vetting their running mates.
The etymology of the title bears out the importance of the vice presidency: in Latin, vice means “in place of” or “in succession to.” For example, when the president sends the second-in-command to an important state function, the vice president is standing in place of – representing – the president at the event.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites vice-president in 1574, when “Sergius the Vice-president of Asia” must have really balanced out the ticket. This vice- technically functions as a prefix; the U.S. Constitution’s use of Vice President may obscure vice’s original grammatical role. The abbreviation V.P. is cited by 1887, the colloquial veep by 1949.
The earliest vice the OED finds is vice-collector, which it dates to 1497. (And you thought substitute teachers had it bad. Good thing we don’t call them “vice-teachers.”) The prefix proliferated in the 17th and 18th centuries, titling the likes of vice-apostle, vice-butler, vice-Christ, vice-husband, and vice-viceroy. A vice-viceroy was an official serving in place of the viceroy, who served in place of the monarch (French roi, “king”) in a colony, for instance. Old French at one point rendered Latin’s vice as vis-, which survives in English’s phonetically challenging viscount.
Latin’s vice is a form (the ablative case) of the noun vicis, which meant a “change,” “turn,” “succession,” or “place,” hence vice’s “in place of.” The word also appears in the adverbial phrase vice versa, a construction (the ablative absolute) literally meaning “the place having been turned.”
A vicar originally served in place of a parish priest. Parents live vicariously through their children’s endeavors. The vicissitudes of life are its constant and unpredictable changes. All of these words feature, at root, Latin’s vicis.
After Cruz made news with his pick for Number Two, many, like former Speaker John Boehner, have attacked Cruz’ vices. Others, meanwhile, think Carly Fiorina will bring out Trump’s own vices – and viciously bring it to the frontrunner. This vice, and its adjective, vicious, are not related. The root is Latin’s vitium, a “fault,” “defect,” or “offense,” source of the verb vitiate.
Changing vice’s ways
Vicis has some notable Germanic cousins. They demonstrate quite the change, for English owes both week and weak to a common, Indo-European ancestor shared with vicis.
Week is from Old English’s wiecan, whose various Germanic cognates meaning “office” and “function” may point back to some sort of ritual “changing over” of duties after the period of a week. The seven-day week is found in ancient Mesopotamian cultures, though its modern iteration is owed to Jewish tradition; some think of the Sabbath as marking the “turning” period in the week.
Old English had wác, which corresponded to the Old Norse form that eventually yielded weak, going strong in spite of meaning “having deficient strength” since the 1300s. One of the early usages of weak actuallymeant “bending,” due to lack of strength. Indo-European linguists propose a Proto-Indo-European root of *weik-, meaning “bend.” (The cognate wicker preserves this sense in its bent benches.) Something that bends is not sturdy, stiff, or strong. When you bend something, you change it.
Cruz’s vice presidential announcement may ultimately signal the weakness of his presidential prospects now, but one thing is for sure: the senator certainly doesn’t seem to be bending before the Republican convention this summer, as he wants no one in place of him in the Oval Office.