Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Presumptive Nominee, I Presume?

Hillary Clinton suspended her presidential campaign over the weekend, allowing Barack Obama to claim the mantle of "presumptive nominee" for the Democratic Party. Of course, many in the media had already bestowed that title on Obama the previous Tuesday, after the vaunted "superdelegates" gave him an insurmountable lead in the delegate count. John McCain achieved the same feat on the Republican side back in early February when Mitt Romney pulled out of the race, though it took another month for Mike Huckabee to withdraw and seal the deal on McCain's "presumptive" status. It's a word we hear every election cycle, but Word Routes reader Courtney S. asks, where does it come from?

Presumptive shares a Latin root with presumptuous, both coming from praesumptivus, meaning "bold, insolent." The idea of presumption in English originally had to do with taking more than your fair share, but that impudent meaning ended up sticking to presumptuous and gradually falling away from presumptive. Instead, the key use of presumptive emerging in the early 17th century was in the phrase heir presumptive, defined as "a person who expects to inherit but whose right can be defeated by the birth of a nearer relative." That nearer relative with greater rights to inheritance is known as the heir apparent. From that sense, presumptive came to be applied to other situations where a right or title can be presumed but not guaranteed.

The background of the word in inherited entitlement, along with the historical connection to presumptuous, rankles some word watchers, notably New York Times columnist (and friend to VT) William Safire. In 2004, Safire called "presumptive nominee" (then applied to John Kerry) a "bogus title," and noted approvingly when a Times reporter broke from the pack and referred to him instead as the "presumed nominee." And when McCain was anointed with the "presumptive" title earlier this year, he renewed his complaint, saying, "there is a purple coloration to that word that befits a royal court rather than a democratic election."

The distinction between presumptive and presumptuous continues to confuse many English speakers, including President Bush (who by his own admission is often easily confused by language). Back in the 2000 primaries, before he had wrapped up the nomination, Bush declined to discuss who he would select as vice president, saying, "I think it's incredibly presumptive for someone who has yet to earn his party's nomination to be picking vice presidents." He meant, of course, that it would be presumptuous, since he was not yet the presumptive nominee. Or at least that's what I presume he meant.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

William Safire explains how he got started in the "word dodge."
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