- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a stuffed toy bear
One of the most endlessly interesting groups of words in the language is eponyms—that is, words derived via some etymological quirk from a person’s name. And one of the most famous examples of those, is the teddy bear:
According to the most widely accepted version of the tale, in November 1902 President Roosevelt was invited to take part in a hunting trip in Mississippi. The president was reportedly the only member of the party who failed to kill anything during the hunt, and so as to not let him leave empty-handed, a young black bear was caught and chained to a tree for Roosevelt to shoot for sport. The president, however, refused to do so and instead asked for the bear to be released.
Despite showing Roosevelt in a compassionate light, the incident (as is seemingly always the case) was quickly pounced upon by the press, and a famous satirical cartoon—depicting a bespectacled Roosevelt turning his back on a trembling bear cub, with the caption “Drawing the line in Mississippi”—appeared in The Washington Post on 16 November 1902.
Riding on the back of the story, within a matter of weeks toy black bears nicknamed “teddies” began appearing in New York toyshops; they quickly proved enormously popular, and the name teddy bear has endured ever since.
But the teddy bear wasn’t Roosevelt’s only contribution to our language: he is also credited with coining the characteristically robust terms lunatic fringe and bully pulpit. And nor for that matter was the teddy bear the only presidential soft toy on offer in the early 1900s...
Taft’s shaky four-year term in office reportedly began with a celebratory banquet of roast possum and potatoes (at the president-elect’s request) in Atlanta in January 1909. At the end of the meal, Taft was presented with a stuffed possum, nicknamed “Billy”, which his advisors claimed was going to replace Roosevelt’s teddy bear as the Next Big Thing. The Georgia Billy Possum Company was founded shortly after, and soon thousands of stuffed Billy Possums—as well as badges, posters, pins, and even membership to a children’s Billy Possum club—were being put on sale all across America.
The teddy bear has been relegated to a seat in the rear, and for four years, possibly eight, the children of the United States will play with Billy Possum.
The Los Angeles Times, 1909
Despite all the anti-teddy-bear rhetoric, however, Billy Possum was a complete failure. Not only did the teddy bear craze endure, despite all predictions, but as Taft’s presidency faltered so too did the Billy Possum brand. Taft went on to be ousted from office after just one term in 1913, and whereas Roosevelt had been depicted as “drawing the line in Mississippi”, the satirists turned on Taft and reportedly presented him as a weeping boy who had lost his teddy bear. Ouch...