Earlier this month, Melania Trump became the 45th FLOTUS or First Lady of the United States. Other firsts she can claim include being the first FLOTUS not to speak English as her first language, the first foreign-born FLOTUS since Louisa Adams (FLOTUS from 1825-1829) and the first FLOTUS in quite some time to delay her move to the White House.
That opening paragraph would have been 25 words longer if I hadn’t used FLOTUS, which partly explains why the word exists. FLOTUS is an abbreviation; the short form of a word, often used to save time, effort or space (particularly in writing). In general, an abbreviation can be formed from any of the letters in a word or phrase. With forms of address, for example, ‘Captain’ can be written as ‘Capt.’ and ‘Mister’ is almost always written as ‘Mr’. We usually pronounce an abbreviation in the same way we would the full form of the word, so /ˈkæptɪn/ and /ˈmɪstə(r)/, not /kæpt/ and /mɜːr/.
One particular type of abbreviation is the initialism. Instead of making a short form from any of the letters in a word or phrase, initialisms are formed from the first letters of other words. To pronounce them, we say each of the letters individually. You might see D.O.B. on official forms, RSVP on invitations or RIP on gravestones. These everyday initialisms are taken from English, French and Latin respectively and have become so much a part of the English language that their origins might well be forgotten.
Related to the initialism, FLOTUS is another type of abbreviation – an acronym. Like initialisms, acronyms are made from the first letters of longer names but unlike initialisms, they’re pronounced as words in their own right. Instead of saying each letter of FLOTUS individually, it’s pronounced to rhyme with lotus.
This makes FLOTUS easy to use in everyday speech. The word has spread from insider slang used by secret service agents to refer to Nancy Reagan (FLOTUS from 1981-1989) into much wider use in popular TV shows, news reports and general conversation as a way of referring to all subsequent First Ladies of the United States. There’s a mild irreverence to FLOTUS that means it’s used to talk about them rather than to them but it certainly isn’t an offensive slang term. In fact, it is now used by (former) First Ladies to refer to themselves, as can be seen in Hillary Clinton’s mini Twitter biography.
The popularity of FLOTUS has continued to grow so much that the word is now enjoying its latest incarnation as an official Twitter handle, created for Michelle Obama (FLOTUS from 2009-2017 and @FLOTUS from 2013-2017). In fact, FLOTUS has become so well established online, in print and IRL that rather than altering the word itself in anyway, people have humorously speculated what the ‘L’ might be made to stand for if a female President of the United States is ever elected. When it looked like Hillary Clinton might become POTUS, one suggestion was that her husband – former President Bill Clinton – might become ‘First Laddie of the United States’.
Although First Laddie isn’t likely to catch on, other names or phrases created for existing acronyms – rather playfully known as backronyms – have fooled people over the years, along with many examples of folk etymology. As convincing as they might sound though, ADIDAS is not an acronym of all day I dream about sport, posh is not the short form of Port Out, Starboard Home and golf does not stand for gentlemen only, ladies forbidden. To enjoy accurate etymology, we’d recommend using the Word Origin section in OALD entries.
FLOTUS is not yet in the online version of Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary but look out for it in a future update.
Danielle Gee is an Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. Before joining OUP, she gained a BA in English and volunteered for VSO in PNG.