President: From the Origins of the Word to a Crazy Rabbit Attack

Monday, February 17, 2014

Jimmy Carter, leader of the free world, fends off attack by "killer rabbit." (Jimmy Carter Library and Museum)

In honor of President's Day, we take two historical looks at the American presidency. 

The first is a look at the word "president" itself—it's as much a lesson in etymology as in history. Following the Revolutionary War, there were questions over what title to give to the new republic’s first leader. Ultimately, the word “president” was decided, a title that offered little power and referred to someone who presides over a meeting—a way, the founders thought, that would keep the leader from thinking of himself as kingly. 

Mark Forsyth, author of "The Etymologicon" and "The Horologicon," looks back the word's humble origins and traces just how it came to have the heft it has today.

Jimmy Carter's "Killer Rabbit" Debacle

How did a small angry mammal change the course of history? The answer lies with the 39th president of the United States.

Jimmy Carter’s encounter with an angry swamp animal in the spring of 1979 lasted only a moment. But it played a key role in derailing Carter's hopes for a second term, and changed the way American presidents have managed their image since then.

The story begins in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was unknown on the national stage, despite his compelling resume. Walter Cronkite summed up Carter's credentials this way: “He's a peanut farmer, Baptist Deacon, 11-year Navy veteran and a nuclear engineer.”

Carter beat Gerald Ford that year, but he got to the White House and found a country in turmoil. As Ohio University history Professor Kevin Mattson explains, there was "an enormous gas crisis," inflation and "numerous foreign policy issues that he's finding difficult to handle."

The most significant foreign policy issue, the Iran-Hostage Crisis, came in 1979. Yet, WNYC reporter Jim O'Grady says that President Carter's bizarre encounter with a crazed swimming rabbit on a Georgia lake crystallized an emerging sense that Carter was a man in over his head.

Click here to listen to O'Grady's full report and to hear the "I Don't Want a Bunny Wunny" song by Tom Paxton.


Gavin Bryars and Jim O'Grady

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Mythili Rao and Jillian Weinberger


T.J. Raphael

Comments [6]

David Brittain from Ohio

I used to water ski on a creek in New Jersey. One day, when I stopped the boat to pick up a skier, there was a large rabbit swimming towards the boat. I didn't think it was going to "attack", so I grabbed it by the scruff of its neck. I let go really quick; it was covered in fleas. I think it got into the water to drown the fleas, and it was probably looking for a place to get out of the water and the boat was the closest thing. I dropped him back in the water and it swam off. It looked just like the photo of Carter and his rabbit. I would bet that was something similar with him.

Feb. 19 2014 03:08 PM
Shannon Jenkins from Dartmouth, MA

Ditto to Prof. Jay's comment. It really irked me to hear an "expert" get the facts so wrong. I'm not sure if he was trying to simplify things or what, but I expect better from the Takeaway.

Shannon Jenkins
Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science
UMass Dartmouth

Feb. 18 2014 11:29 AM
Stewart Jay from Seattle, WA

The guest today was wrong on two counts about the historical use of "President." First, it is not true that prior to the Constitution's adoption no nation had used the term "President" to designate the chief executive officer. During the period of the Articles of Confederation, at least 3 states used "President" in their constitutions to describe the chief executive officer--Pennsylvania, Delaware, and North Carolina. One of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was John Dickinson, who had been President of both Delaware and Pennsylvania. Indeed, for two months in 1782, he was President of both states. Under the Articles, the 13 states were recognized by each other as independent sovereigns, possessing all the rights of nations except for those powers expressly given up to Congress in the Articles.
Second, the guest spoke of the Senate and the House having selected the term President. The Framers of Constitution chose the title, before either existed. He was confusing the discussions in First Congress over what honorific to use in addressing the President.

Stewart Jay
Professor of Law
University of Washington School of Law

Feb. 17 2014 03:48 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

What represents boring and inconsequential? I don't know, Pleb. Short for plebeian.
Since the founders wanted an inconsequential name for the leader of our country and they used "President", and now the word President is seen with dignity, perhaps it is time to find a new word to honor our founders wishes of an inconsequential name for our "President."

Feb. 17 2014 12:11 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

A Killer Rabbit changed the way American Politics would spin news: Killer story from The Takeaway!

Perhaps, Carter should have released this to the nation:

Feb. 17 2014 11:59 AM
Bob from Pelham, NY

"The story begins in 1977, when Jimmy Carter was unknown on the national stage...". You may want to fact-check the date in your intro -- since Jimmy Carter was elected President in November 1976, it is unlikely he was still unknown on the national stage in 1977.

Feb. 17 2014 10:11 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.