Monday, May 18, 2015

"POTUS" and "SCOTUS"--Recent Buzzwords

President Obama is now tweeting as @POTUS. This adds to the official @WhiteHouse account, the Vice President's @VP, and the First Lady's @FLOTUS. And you can follow even more White House Twitter accounts.

We might be used to thinking of the President of the United States as POTUS and the First Lady as FLOTUS, but these terms haven't always been in common parlance. As recently as 1999, the pilot of The West Wing could make it a punchline:
Laurie: Tell your friend POTUS he's got a funny name, and he should learn how to ride a bicycle.
Sam Seaborn: I would, but he's not my friend; he's my boss. It's not his name, it's his title.
Laurie: POTUS?
Sam Seaborn: President of the United States. I'll call ya.
And what about SCOTUS, for Supreme Court of the United States? It hasn't always been a common nickname. When I was in law school, back in the last century, we said "Supreme Court" (or, impertinently, "the Supremes") and wrote "SCt" in our notes.

SCOTUSblog, founded in 2002, quickly became a go-to source for information about the Supreme Court and its cases—and its name doubtless influenced the language, along with our texting, tweeting love of textual shortcuts.

In old law review articles in HeinOnline, you can find plenty of instances of "scotus"—but they are mostly references to the medieval philosopher, theologian, and (since 1993) saint, Duns Scotus. In fact, looking at search results in chronological order up through the 1990s, I saw hundreds of references to Duns Scotus and just a few to SCOTUS.

The first instance I found of SCOTUS referring to the Supreme Court was in The Brief  in 1965, noting that Phi Delta Phi students of Court at the University of Colorado had contributed to a "Successful Brief to SCOTUS." In 1969, the Journal of Broadcasting refers to Red Lion as "the most important decision on broadcasting from SCOTUS in many years."

In October 1970, the Harvard Law Record (a student newspaper) uses the term with a wink: "the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS, if you represent a wire service or count yourself among such quondam friends of the Court as the N.Y. Daily News)." In a 1997 "On Language" column, William Safire confirms that the term originated in wire service practice.

Fifteen years later, a South African journal chides the New York Times for its sexist definition of SCOTUS:
Even the most puritanical person in matters of word usage will readily concede that the use of the noun man or men is indefensible in certain contexts. In October 1983 the highly regarded and smug New York Times, which prides itself on the elegance of its English and the accuracy of its content, carried an article dealing with the acronyms of the institutions of the country which spoke of 'the nine men' on 'the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS)'. By then justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to be appointed to the court, had served on it for two years. She gently chided the newspaper, saying that according to her knowledge 'SCOTUS' did not consist of nine men, and that information to the contrary would be of great interest to 'the POTUS' (President of the United States), the SCOTUS and the undersigned FWOTSC (First Woman on The Supreme Court)'. (See Rand Daily Mail 19 October 1983.)
(That letter was quoted in two U.S. law journal articles, too.)

In the late 1990s, "scotus" begins appearing in URLs (e.g., for stories posted on and the email address of the Supreme Court's press officer. The in 2003, the ABA Journal has an article on blogging and mentions SCOTUS Blog.

Fast forward to 2014. HeinOnline shows 249 articles with occurrences of "scotus." By my quick count, there were:;
  • 4 instances referring to Duns Scotus;
  • 1 referring to "Jacobus Craig, Scotus"; and
  • 88 referring to the Supreme Court of the United States (often in citations to newspaper stories)
Most of the rest are URLs or citations to SCOTUS Blog. In a handful of instances, I couldn't tell, because our HeinOnline account doesn't include access to the full text of the article. Still, we can tell that SCOTUS has really taken off as a familiar nickname. You'd think the justices were our BFFs!

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