State of the Union: The rise of 'we'

Some words feature prominently in every US presidential State of the Union message, others come and go as events dictate or fashions change. As President Barack Obama prepares to address Congress, we look at the ups and downs of the 10 nouns and adjectives (and one pronoun) used most often since 1790.

Word count: 10,960
We
"We are moving through a perilous time" Harry S. Truman, 1952
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We
The 20th Century sees the rise of presidential power and the emergence of mass media. Presidents seize the opportunity to emphasise their role as voice of the people.
Word count: 7,036
Government
"I shall ask to change the framework of government itself" Richard M. Nixon, 1971
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We The State of the Union is about the government's agenda, so "government" inevitably features prominently. Richard Nixon used it heavily in outlining his New American Revolution in 1971.
Word count: 5,129
Congress
"Now, my friends in Congress, I want to conclude…" Lyndon B Johnson, 1969
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We This is a message delivered to Congress, so use of the term is consistently high. In 1969, an outgoing Lyndon Johnson reviewed the Great Society legislation enacted by Congress.
Word count: 4,580
United States
"There is a rank due to the United States among nations" George Washington, 1793
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We A key patriotic buzzword before "America" took over. In mid-19th Century, as new states joined the union and their rights regarding slavery were debated, "states" was also used alone.
Word count: 3,794
People
"The American people demand that we change" Bill Clinton, 1994
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We Used to foster a sense of national solidarity in the 60s and 70s, when society was divided. Bill Clinton invoked the will of the "people" as he tussled with a Republican Congress.
Word count: 3,302
Country
"This country, among the most fertile within our limits" Thomas Jefferson, 1803
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We More popular than the alternative "nation" during the 19th Century. Jefferson referred to the "country" beyond the Mississippi bought from France in the Louisiana Purchase.
Word count: 3,249
Public
"All emergency public works shall be united in a … new and greatly enlarged plan" Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1935
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We Used in several different ways. In the 19th Century there was great concern about the effect of war and recession on public debt. FDR used it when referring to public works.
Word count: 2,757
War
"Our present and immediate task is to win the war" Woodrow Wilson, 1917
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We Predictably used less during the peaceful period in US history in the late 19th Century. War was not declared in Vietnam, which is one reason why it doesn't loom large in the 60s and 70s.
Word count: 2,431
American
"I am proud of America and I am proud to be an American" Gerald Ford, 1976
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We The sense of being American grows in the 20th Century. Like "people" it is used to project an idea of national unity during the divided 60s and 70s.
Word count: 2,174
World
"It is a big idea: a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together" George H.W. Bush, 1991
graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We graphic showing frequency of the use of the word We The use of this word grows as the US role on the world stage expands. The spike in 1991 is due to the "new world order" expected after the end of the Cold War.

The commentary was prepared with the help of Professor Iwan Morgan of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London.

The most commonly used words are "the" and "of", followed by "to", "and", "in", "a" and "that"- and so on. The word "we" is the 19th most commonly used word, and "government" the 30th. We have omitted the word "states" (32nd most common, used 6,560 times) because it is mostly paired with "united" (40th most common, used 4,900 times).

Other nouns and adjectives omitted include: "year", "years", "great", "time" and "present".

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