By Hugh Rawson
The words look like they might be Latin, perhaps something you would find scrawled on a wall in Pompeii, but they are not. Potus is an acronym, composed of the initial letters of the phrase, President of the United States. Flotus is his wife, the First Lady of the United States. (It should be pronounced FLOE-tus to rhyme with POE-tus.)
Once used mainly by the Secret Service and other White House insiders, the acronyms have slipped into the public domain. For example, historian David Brinkley, in a review of Jodi Kantor’s The First Marriage, a new book about Barack and Michelle Obama, noted that the author “became intensely interested in the working relationship between Potus and Flotus” after interviewing them in 2009 (The New York Times, Feb. 17, 2012).
In the Age of Twitter, when people rely on abbreviations to fit messages within a 140-character limit, Potus harks back to the early years of another innovation in communications: the telegraph. Potus initially appeared in even shorter form, as Pot, standing for President of the, in a dictionary of codes published in 1879 by Walter P. Phillips, head of the Washington bureau of the Associated Press (and later general manager of the AP’s great rival, United Press). The full Potus appeared for the first time in an 1895 revision of Phillips’s code book.
Walter Phillips started out as a telegrapher. Before going to the AP, he set a speed record by copying 2731 words in an hour into the Morse code of dashes and dots. For this feat he won a gold pen from the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse. The Phillips code was rapidly and widely adopted because it enabled operators to tap out messages much more quickly. For example, the message that “The president of the United States, it is said, will communicate to King Edward VII” could be compressed in the Phillips code to “T potus, ixs, wi km to Kevy.” The code thus increased transmission speeds by some two hundred percent, while reducing telegraph line-time and costs proportionately.
The code had hundreds of terms. Among them: ckx for committed suicide, xn for constitution, fapib for filed a petition in bankruptcy, mu for murder, pjy for perjury, and – appearing in print for the first time in the 1895 revision — Scotus, an abbreviation that remains in use for Supreme Court of the United States. It also included numbers, among them 30 for end of message and 73 for best regards, both of which are still employed by, respectively, newspaper reporters to mark the end of a story or column and by amateur, or ham, radio operators.
Flotus is much newer than Potus. The oldest example of Flotus in the historically organized Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1983. The reference is to the formidable Nancy Reagan, wife of Ronald, Potus from 1981 to 1989. But the term almost certainly was in use for some time before 1983. Nor is the origin known of the underlying “First Lady,” for the president’s wife. A book about president’s wives, entitled First Ladies, was published in 1932, and William Safire reported in his Political Dictionary that the informal title was awarded to Mary Todd Lincoln in the 1860s, but he did not cite a source.
Not every Flotus has been charmed by the title, however. As J. E. Lighter, the great authority on American slang noted in The Atlantic (October, 1997): “Jacqueline Kennedy, an accomplished equestrian, once remarked, ‘The one thing I do not want to be called is First Lady. It sounds like a saddle horse.’”