How FDR Led to LBJ, DSK, OBL, Etc.

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 11 2012 7:34 PM


When did we start referring to famous people by three initials?

FDR Birth Announcement.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's whimsical birth announcement demonstrates that he was known as FDR from the very beginning.

Image courtesy NARAuser.

The Kennedys are back in the headlines today—this time it’s RFK Jr.  That three-initial formulation, common to the Kennedy family since the 1960s, has lately appeared in headlines about French politician Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK), Osama Bin Laden (OBL), and even LeBron James (often referred to as LBJ, though his middle name is Raymone). When did we start referring to famous people by three initials?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

When we elected a president named FDR. His full name, of course, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but that was a mouthful. And referring to Roosevelts by their initials was a family tradition, probably because many in the clan shared first names. (There were multiple generations of James Roosevelts, for instance.) FDR’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, sometimes went by SDR. And Franklin’s distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, may have been the first president to go by his initials in headlines, though in his case there were only two. “TR” seems to have caught on in his days as New York police commissioner in the 1890s mainly because the tabloids found “Roosevelt” unwieldy—to his friends, he remained “Theodore.”  H.L. Mencken noted that some British prime ministers from around TR’s time also went by two initials in the press, including Campbell Bannerman (“CB”) and Lloyd George (“LG”).

As for Franklin, the nickname was stamped on him from birth: A card announcing his arrival in the world on Jan. 30, 1882, depicted a stork carrying a bundle inscribed, “F.D.R.” Young Franklin apparently fancied the appellation, signing “FDR” on a letter he sent to a friend as early as age 9. Newspapers no doubt found the abbreviation especially handy, given that there had already been a President Roosevelt. (“FDR” appeared in the New York Times from the first year of his presidency.) Many of his New Deal programs were similarly stamped with three-letter initialisms (WPA, TVA, SSA, etc.). That may have been a coincidence, or it may have reflected a cultural trend, as companies such as IBM, RCA, NBC, and CBS had risen to prominence in the previous decade. (Three-letter abbreviations of business titles, such as CEO and CFO, came along much later.)


Given FDR’s popularity and longevity in office, it’s no surprise that subsequent Democratic presidents followed his example in nomenclature. Like FDR, John F. Kennedy wasn’t his family’s first prominent politician. His father, Joseph Kennedy, had served under FDR as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

But perhaps the most enthusiastic—and calculating—adopter of the convention was JFK’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. As a congressman, long before he became Kennedy’s vice president, he reportedly instructed an assistant always to refer to him by his initials: “FDR–LBJ, FDR–LBJ. Do you get it? What I want is for them to start thinking of me in terms of initials.” He didn’t stop there. His wife was conveniently nicknamed Lady Bird Johnson, and the couple gave their daughters (Lynda Bird and Luci Baines) names with the same initials. Even the family dog was Little Beagle Johnson.

By then the naming trend had spread to other public figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. (it’s possible “King” was too generic for abbreviation-seeking headline-writers), but it sputtered out among presidents with Richard Nixon. He titled his autobiography RN, but the press generally seemed content to use his full surname.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks H.W. Brands of the University of Texas at Austin, Bob Clark of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania, and Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.


It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?