Brits like me grow up thinking we know everything there is to know about America. We watch your shows, worship your celebrities, and even drink your beer-flavored Budweiser. But when we come and live in the U.S. we discover that this is a land full of surprises, where eggs can also be plants and kettles sit on the stove and whistle.
In 2011, as a freshly emigrated Londoner in New York, I had yet to encounter the term POTUS. If I had heard the venereal disease sounding acronym used to refer to the president of the United States, I'd subconsciously filed it under "Huh?" then forgotten about it and carried on with my day.
A year into my new American life, HBO's excellent White House comedy Veep (also an acronym, but one I somehow deciphered) started and it was all "POTUS this" and "POTUS that." Still, it took well over a season for me to understand that Veep's never-seen top dog was not, as I had assumed, called President Potus.
On that momentous day, I paused an episode. (It was the one where "POTUS" does something that Julia Louis-Dreyfus finds objectionable.) I turned to my husband — also a Brit but one, apparently, with access to that particularly shady corner of the web where information about amusing political shorthand is stored — and asked if he'd be so kind as to explain why the characters on Veep call the leader of the free world by his name and not, say, "the president" or "Mr. President." It seemed a little rude.
Wearily, he explained that "POTUS" was short for "president of the United States."
"Shut up, that is NOT a thing," I said. "It sounds like something you rub on an infected toe."
"Yep," he said. "Can I press play now?"
"So what do they call the first lady? FLOTUS?"
"Yep. Can I press play now?"
"Hell no. Pass me the internet…"
To my mild embarrassment, over nine million hits confirmed POTUS' existence. It was not a spoof term; neither, to my horror, was FLOTUS.
POTUS has actually been around for a while. Franklin D. Roosevelt (an acronym enthusiast who started signing off as FDR at age 9) used the designation in his messages to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II. Some years later, White House staff started to refer to Nancy Reagan as FLOTUS.
Of course, I also discovered that where there's POTUS, there is also SCOTUS. To this day, I can't pronounce "SCOTUS" without sliding in an "R" after the "C" and sniggering. That the Supreme Court has to endure such a moniker, largely so people who tweet about it can fit more in their message than the words "Supreme Court of the United States," is a little unsettling.
Still, I was anxious to try out my new words on some real Americans. How impressed would they be that this Brit had got her head around these wonky industry terms? Not at all, as it turns out. They may actually have been a little confused when I crowbarred "FLOTUS" into a conversation about local fishmongers.
Once I got used to POTUS, I had to concede that some presidents actually suit the term. Barack Obama even makes it sound cool. Donald Trump's election would, however, allow it backslide into the realm of tongue fungus and foot rot. Perhaps if he does get in we can pretend POTUS is the name for the condition that prevents fake tan from adhering to the one-inch circumference around each of his eyes.
As the next election approaches, the use of "POTUS" and "FLOTUS" by mainstream media outlets is rampant. I still don't feel great about it. And there's a problem everyone's too polite to talk about: How exactly are we to apply this formula to America's (possibly) soon to be first gentleman, Bill Clinton? "FGOTUS"?
Can we really expect the poor guy to concentrate on weighty tasks, like picking out china patterns for the White House, with that ghastly acronym floating over his head?