I was drawn to the expression, “presidential president” appearing in Washington Post’s (August 12) article titled, “What a presidential president would have said about Charlottesville.” It follows:

“Here is what President Trump said Saturday about the violence in Charlottesville sparked by a demonstration of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members: We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides. Here is what a presidential president would have said: “The violence Friday and Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., is a tragedy and an unacceptable, impermissible assault on American values. It is an assault, specifically, on the ideals we cherish most in a pluralistic democracy — tolerance, peaceable coexistence and diversity. ….

Of course, I've heard expressions such as Presidential candidate, Presidential campaign, Presidential speech "Presidential agendas," and "Presidential advisor" to be sick 'n' tired, but I don’t think I’ve heard such a usage as “presidential president” very often.

Mr. Trump is a legitimate president apart from potential criticisms. Why does it need to be “presidential president.”?

  • Does “presidential president” mean a desirable / ideal /president-like president? Is it a common expression?
  • Do you say 'vice presidential vice-president, 'chairpersonal chairparson,'directorial director,' 'managerial manager, 'doctoral doctor,''paternal father, maternal mother,' 'childish child,' and likewise?


In response to some of community members' behest to include the research I’ve done for this post, the followings are what I did and found before posting this question.:

I checked: Readers English Japanese Dictionary published by a Japan’s leading English dictionary specialist publisher, Kenkyu-sha Publishing (2nd Ed), Oxford Advanced Learners English Dictionary (2000), Oxford Concise English Dictionary (10th Ed.), Oxford American Dictionary (1980), and Collins Cobuild English Dictionary (2003 New Ed.) all at hand.

Being an octogenarian, I admit all English dictionaries I had bought and presently own are pretty or very old as I am. I bought most of them before retiring more than 20 years ago.

Readers English Japanese Dictionary defines ‘presidential’ simply as ‘of president.’

OAELD shows it only as an adjective, without definition.

OCD shows ‘presidential’ as an adjective, derivative of president, without giving its meaning.

Oxford American Dictionary shows ‘presidential’ as an adjective of ‘president’ without showing its meaning.

Collins Cobuild English Dictionary defines ‘presidential’ as presidential activities or things relate or belong to president. ex. Peru’s presidential election.

The above results resonate the comments of some users that they have hardly, or never heard of the usage of 'presidential' made in the manner of the above quote. I noted even a respectable answerer, J.R says he 'hasn't seen the phrase "presidential president" very often, either,' much less for an old non-native English speaker like me who've never resided in any of English-speaking countries even only for a short period.

After posting this question, I checked online Oxford Dictionary (ODO) though it was a kind of after-thought, and I found that it provides the second definition of 'presidential as: “Having a behavior or demeanor befitting a president. Dignified and confident,” as I stated in my comment in response to @Clare’s comment.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 21:36

5 Answers 5


This use of the word "presidential" is using Oxford English Dictionary definition 1.b.

U.S. Having a bearing or demeanour befitting a president; dignified; confident. Also: appropriate to a president; stately; impressive.

The word was originally used to refer to presidential candidates, as opposed to a sitting president like President Trump, when discussing whether their behavior and conduct was of the kind that made them fit to be a president. That is still the way in which it is most commonly used.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there was much discussion about whether candidate Trump had a demeanor that was presidential, or befitting a president.

When asked about his demeanor during the campaign, Trump famously said that if he was elected president:

"I will be so presidential, you will be so bored."

The writer in the Washington Post is insinuating that President Trump's remarks about Charlottesville were not appropriate for the office of President, or in other words not presidential. The writer is contrasting that behavior with what a presidential president would have said, by which they mean, these are the remarks that befit the office of President.

Edit: In your second question, you ask:

Do you say 'vice presidential vice-president, 'chairpersonal chairparson,'directorial director,' 'managerial manager, 'doctoral doctor,''paternal father, maternal mother,' 'childish child,' and likewise?

The reason most of these phrases would be unnatural is because the adjective presidential meaning "befitting a president" is unique. It is an outgrowth of usage.

As with most adjectives that us the -al or -ial suffix, its initial meaning was of or pertaining to the noun, as with OED 1.a.

Of or relating to a president or presidency.

So uses in this sense would be something like "The presidential campaign was underway." Uses like this were extended to the sense cited at the top of this answer gradually over a long period of time. You can see the difference between the meanings in this sentence:

X, who is a presidential [sense 1a] candidate, has an appearance that is very presidential [sense 1b].

When discussing who should be chosen for president, it was and is reasonable to ask, "Does this person have a presidential appearance/demeanor/style?"

However, directorial, managerial, and doctoral never underwent these shifts in usage.

The only sure way to know whether an adjective derived from a noun can be applied to itself this way is to consult the entry for the adjective in a thorough dictionary.

  • 10
    Similarly, we can have a "regal king" or a "feminine woman" or a "macho man".
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 13, 2017 at 10:46
  • If I may pick on your paragraph after the first quote: I would understand the phrase "presidential candidate" to mean nothing more than a candidate for the office of president, and I would find it rather strange if someone used the phrase to mean "a candidate with a bearing or demeanor befitting a president".
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 3:52
  • 2
    @DavidZ consider these example uses from OED: General Jackson's manners are more presidential than those of any of the candidates. He is grave, mild, and reserved. (1824) Note that they're comparing the presidential demeanor of candidates. And from 2004: As CNN waited for the speech to begin, it gave us a shot of the very presidential Kerry motorcade leaving the Heinz estate outside Pittsburgh. This is what I mean when I say "originally used to refer to presidential candidates, when discussing whether their behavior and conduct was of the kind that made them fit to be a president." Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 22:02
  • @RaceYouAnytime Sure, but none of those examples you've quoted use the phrase "presidential candidate", which is what I was talking about.
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 3:15
  • 1
    @DavidZ "Presidential candidate" would be using OED definition 1.a., which I mentioned in my edit to the answer. In that case it means "Of or relating to a president or presidency," not "having a bearing or demeanor befitting a president," the latter of which is the sense that applies in the question and is often discussed with reference to presidential candidates, e.g. "Does that candidate look presidential?" Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 3:20

From Wordnik:

presidential (adj.) Befitting a president, especially the office of the President of the United States: criticized the candidate for not looking presidential.

I haven't seen the phrase "presidential president" very often, either; normally, I see something like "presidential remarks" or "presidential behavior," or perhaps, "That speech wasn't very presidential."

The phrase seems a little redundant, but a key factor is that Donald Trump, in an earlier speech, said, "With the exception of the late, great, Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office." Since Trump publically proclaimed that he was a "presidential president" just a few weeks before this story was published, I'm thinking that writers at the Post are using Trump's own words to be a measuring stick against his current behavior, actions, and words.

As for vice-presidential vice president, I agree with @Mari-Lou's comment – it's too wordy and clunky. (I think you'd even have a hard time finding gubernatorial governor, although that's a similar construct presidential president.) That said, I suppose you might find an author referring to Mr. Pence as a presidential vice-president; however, that would most likely be alluding to the fact that Pence might opt to run for president in a future election.

It might be worth noting that the OED has, under it's entry for presidential, this secondary meaning: "Having a bearing or demeanour befitting a president; dignified; confident. Also: appropriate to a president; stately; impressive". However, there is no similar, corresponding secondary meaning listed under gubernatorial.


Yes, 'presidential president' sounds strange because it seems so redundant, like a pleonasm. And it certainly could be a pleonasm. But the general phrasing, 'an X-ly X' (an X that acts like an X) is not exactly redundant. A thing may be called X, but that doesn't mean that it has all the characteristics of X, and to say 'an X-ly X' emphasizes that the X does have those properties normally associated with an X.

'Presidential' just means 'having properties like a president or associated with being a president'. These might be: being of an advanced age/male, wearing clothes (quality suit and tie), having extensive leadership experience, mature and controlled behavior, etc, etc.

There's nothing special in English about this near-pleonasm. Any language can do this. It just depends on the circumstances where this would fit. 'Presidential' may have specific English connotations but can probably be translated to any language meaning 'like a president' rather than 'actually is a president' (which would really be a pleonasm).


The article that used the construction is from the Washington Post's "Editorial Board": it's an opinion piece, not an objective report.

As opinion writers, they may from time to time engage in rhetorical and poetic devices in order to make their point or convince a reader; the search for literal meaning may crash against these. "Presidential president" is an example of:

  • alliteration and assonance: the phrase is memorable
  • Irony and juxtaposition: As stated in the OP, a president is by definition "presidential". But by placing these words next to each other for your comparison, the writer attempts to draw you to consider that, ironically, maybe not in this case, with concrete examples of what might be more presidential.

An interesting point of comparison to "presidential president" is the phrase "just justice [system]." A general Google search for "just justice" returns many, many matches. The two formulations are similar in that we begin with an office (president) or a system of conflict resolution (justice [system]) whose occupying power may be good, bad, or neutral—and then then we freight the office or system with meanings that imply an expectation of virtuousness from them.

Justice is of course inextricably connected in our minds with "being just"—that is (to quote the first two definitions of the adjective just in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition, 2011)—

1. Honorable and fair in one's dealings and actions: a just ruler. ... 2. Consistent with what is morally right; righteous: a just cause.

But if we descend deeply enough into the definitions of the adjective just, we reach this one:

4. Law Valid within the law; lawful.

This definition is neutral as to honor or morality: one can readily imagine that the system of justice in a deeply oppressive state might hold that sneezing in the presence of the nation's leader is a capital offense—in which case, executing a person guilty of the crime is certainly just in the definition 4 sense of the word. That sense of just does not imply any inherent virtue (or social utility) beyond the arguable virtues of procedural clarity and predictability.

Given the moral vacuum in definition 4 of just, it is hardly surprising that most people who write articles questioning whether this or that state or country has a "just justice system" (or "just justice") use just not in the definition 4 sense of the word but in the definition 1 or 2 sense.

The adjective presidential has similarly freighted and unfreighted meanings, although in this case the unfreighted meaning appears first in AHDEL:

presidential adj. 1a. Of or relating to a president or presidency. b. Befitting a president, especially the office of the president of the United States: criticized the candidate for not looking presidential.

(J.R. cites this same definition 1b in his answer to the posted question.)

Even more than "just [definition 4] justice," "presidential [definition 1a] president" smacks of tautology: if a president does it, it's presidential. However, "presidential [definition 1b] president," in contrast, expresses something entirely distinctive and meaningful: it describes a president who looks and behaves in a manner that is appropriate ("becoming") to a president. Implicitly, prevailing notions of honorable, ethical, and admirable conduct attach themselves to the adjective presidential, just as they do to the adjective just in the phrase "just [definition 1 or 2] justice."

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