Maureen Dowd deals with the comments of the former first lady, Barbara Bush in NBC’s the Today Show in her article titled ‘Silver Fox’s pink slip’ in New York Times (April 27):

“Asked on the “Today” show whether she thought her son Jeb should run for president in 2016, as W. has urged, the famously candid and caustic Silver Fox offered the most honest assessment of her oldest son’s legacy.

“He’s by far the best qualified man, but no, I really don’t,” she said when asked if her second son should aim to be the third Bush in chief. “I think it’s a great country. There are a lot of great families, and it’s not just four families or whatever.

But Bar, who was also giving the back of the hand to the Clintons, spit out the truth. It is wearying that America, a country that broke away from aristocratic England has spawned so many of its own royal political families, dynasties that feel entitled to inhabit the White House, generation after generation, letting their family competitions and tensions shape policy and history to an alarming degree.”

I noticed Dowd likes, and used to call the former President by “W.” in many other places (like W.’s presidency will go down in infamy because he ignored Katrina and the Constitution. / W. and other Bush officials continue to say they could not possibly have known that Saddam had no W.M.D. / Sadly, no one in W.’s inner circle studied the issue), and the former first lady by Bar.

Is it a customary way of Americans to call dignitary’s names by an initial or an abbreviation like “W” and “Bar,” or is it just Ms Dowd’s idiosyncrasy?

Does Mr. George W. Bush’s father pass simply by the by-name, H. everywhere as his son does with W.? Are there many Presidents who were called just by an initial besides W. and JFK (Oh, I forgot to add FDR)?

I’m asking this because we have no habit of calling, and nobody would dare to call our Prime Minister (ex-Prime Ministers) and dignitaries by an initial, first name, or without titles.

By the way, what does ‘Silver Fox’ mean, and why Mrs. Barbara Bush is called so? If I called your mom 'Hey, Silver fox,' instead of Mrs. so-and-so, doesn't it sound rude or offensive to your mom, and you?

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    This has nothing to do with English grammar or etymology.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 2:51
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    I'm not asking neither grammar or etymology. It's not my intent at all in this question. I'm asking the usage, custom, meaning, and choice of words (W., Bar, silver fox) that we don't have in our language system. Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 6:11
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    Cont. I don't think this site is a simple substitute for a shallow grammar book or a dictionary that I search for the origin of words. Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 6:21
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    @MετάEd Onomastics is an established academic discipline. Many of its leading authorities have been and are English professors whose onomastic studies have been regarded as contributions to the study of the English language. Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 12:11
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    @ Yoichi: Referring to someone or something by a single-letter initialism isn't at all uncommon among Anglophones. Many of us know (the big) O (Roy Orbison), and H (Lt. Col. H Jones, killed in the Falklands war, awarded posthumous VC), for example. Plus there are things like the C-word (c#nt), and the Big C (cancer). And over the years, I've known many people independently decide to call my own father "aitch" ("H"), after discovering that his name is Harry. Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 20:32

4 Answers 4


“W.” is quite common, but probably mostly because his father – who also served as U.S. President – had the same first and last name, so they often get differentiated by their middle initials.

JFK, FDR, and LBJ are all commonly-used monikers for those presidents. It's worth noting that the U.S. had already had a President Roosevelt and President Johnson when Franklin and Lyndon took office, so maybe that was a contributing cause.

As for “Bar”, we often use “Barb” (or sometimes “Babs”) as a shortened form of Barbara, but I've never seen the former First Lady referred to as “Bar” until you referenced it in this question.

The “Silver Fox” nickname is a reference to her platinum gray hair, which was prominent even when her husband was in office; she never bothered to color it, and being in the public eye wasn't going to change that. From Wikipedia:

...her interest in domestic staples such as church, gardening, and time spent with family while placing less emphasis on style sense and fashion; she drew attention to both her famous white hair and disinterest in wearing designer clothes.

According to some sources, her hair lost its color due to stress and grief over the loss of a child:

In 1953, the Bushes' daughter Robin died of leukemia. It severely affected Barbara Bush, and is the incident that is credited with beginning to turn her hair from a light brown color to chalk-white.

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    Kris. This site is not a substitute for grammar books, or a cheap dictionary. If a grammar book(s) and English dictionary(ies) can solve every question, I don’t need to join this community. I‘ve been greatly benefited from the wide scope of questions, even from the questions you think silly, corresponding answers and comments. I value flexibility, width, and depth of input available from my peers, and am thankful to those who provide me valuable answers instead of simply booing. I don’t think this community is for only select few of English language scholars and maniacs. Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 7:16
  • Probably worth mentioning that some pro-Bush material only had his middle initial on it.
    – starwed
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 7:28

A scholarly study addressing some of your questions is available online: Anna Gladovka, ‘The Semantics of Nicknames of the American Presidents’, from the Proceedings of the 2002 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society.

Prof. Gladovka surveys presidential nicknames all the way back to Washington (‘the Father of His Country’). Among these are ‘James the Lesser’ (Monroe), ‘Ten-cent Jimmy’ (Buchanan), ‘Handsome Frank’ (Pierce), ‘Honest Abe’ (Lincoln), ‘Big Bill’ (Taft), ‘Ike’ (Eisenhower),‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon) and ‘Slick Willie’ (Clinton).

Of particular relevance is this passage:

3.3. Initials used in nicknames
Three of the presidents were commonly referred to by their initials: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). These presidents possessed high degree of popularity from the public for their political achievements. These short forms of reference became widely used, and it is difficult to find cases of the use of this form with a negative determiner. So, it rather would be used positively.

When a speaker uses initials or abbreviations s/he implies that the audience is aware of what these letters stand for and shares a similar attitude towards the “encoded” person.

 (5) The expressive value of nicknames with INITIALS (JFK)

   (a) I want to speak about X the way people speak about someone if they think about      this person like this:
   (b)   all people in this country know this person
   (c)   I am one of these people
   (d)   if I say “JFK”,
   (e)   all people in this country will know the person I am thinking of
   (f)   I don’t have to say more
   (g)   I know that many people feel something good towards this person

The most common nickname of the present US President George W. Bush – W or Dubya (as pronounced by him with Texan accent) does not fully suit this category. It uses the initial for his middle name to refer to his Texan origin and the fact of his being the son of the forty-first president George Bush. So, there is more meaning in it than in the described nicknames. It is not as positive as JFK, for example, but still quite friendly and indulgent.

  • Interesting study, although this claim rubbed me the wrong way: “Nicknames, that are based on short forms of first names, have positive evaluation and always go with positive adjectives.” Either the study somehow missed the Tricky Dick variant of Nixon's nickname, or there's some kind of confirmation bias or no-true-scotsman going on here. Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 22:07
  • @BraddSzonye Well, I didn't say it was a good academic paper! She doesn't seem to be aware that LBJ actively fostered the initialism to promote identification with his one-time patron FDR; and she is perhaps too young to remember "Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!". ... But I was more concerned to justify the question than to answer it. Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 22:22
  • Heh, point taken. :) Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 22:26
  • I note that "Slick Willie" Clinton makes a strong pair with "Tricky Dick" Nixon on the negative allusions front.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 22:43

The popularity of "W." as a unique identifier for the 43rd U.S. President clearly starts from an unusual problem: The 41st President was George H. W. Bush. One option for distinguishing between the two men would be to refer to them as "43" and "41," respectively—something that the humorist Harry Shearer has done for years on his radio program Le Show.

Another option is to pretend that the younger Bush is George Bush, Junior—which isn't quite accurate, since his full name is "George Walker Bush" and his father's full name is "George Herbert Walker Bush." Still, some people (usually disparagingly) refer to him as "Bush Junior" or simply "Junior." Even more contemptuous is the habit some critics have of calling the younger Bush "Shrub."

That brings us to "W.," a short form familiar enough to the U.S. public to serve (without explanation) as the title of Oliver Stone's 2008 film about G. W. Bush. A further opportunity to express hostility toward the man is possible through the use of "Dubya" as a phonetic version of "W." In Texas (where I grew up), the pronunciation "dubya" for "w" is common but by no means universal; it marks its speaker as being less attuned to cosmopolitan U.S. pronunciation, and therefore has a patronizing element when attributed to someone, just as using "bidness" for "business" does. George W. Bush has a fairly strong Texas accent, and I suspect that referring to him as "Dubya" is in part a way of calling attention to that fact. There is also a faint hint of "Bubba" in "Dubya," which again invites the hearer or reader to think "Southern hick." "Bubba" was a popular (with his critics) nickname for Bill Clinton, who is also from the South (Arkansas).

The only comparable situation in U.S. Presidential history to George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush involves the second president (John Adams) and the sixth (John Quincy Adams). According to the reference that StoneyB cites in his answer, J. Q. Adams was known to some of his opponents as "John the Second" or "King John the Second."


George Bush Sr. has always called his wife "Bar". I've never heard of any other Barbara going by that name, but it is recognized as Bush Sr's affectionate name for her.

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