To mark the 250th birthday of First Lady Dolley Madison, I turned to a 1972 biography by Ethel Stephens Arnett called “Mrs. James Madison: The Incomparable Dolley.”
I love how Arnett opens one chapter with a huge list of “complimentary adjectives” from different books about Madison:
It’s quite a collection, and very helpful for some historical Mad Libs. (You could make your own compelling title out of any three random adjectives, “Dolley Madison, ______, ______, and ______.”) Reading this list reminded me not only of how beloved Dolley Madison was, but also how words change meanings and take on new connotations over time, allowing Dolley to be both anxious and peaceful, and straight and gay.
One adjective really struck me, because it was unfamiliar to me and it didn’t seem very “complimentary.”
According to this list, Dolley Madison was…yeasty.
If someone described themselves to me as yeasty, I’d say they should see a doctor. As far as I can tell, this was not the sense in which it was meant in Dolley Madison’s day. But nailing down the exact meaning isn’t so easy, because apparently the word “yeasty” can mean several different things based on different aspects of yeast. My trusty Oxford English Dictionary was surprisingly no help on this front so I turned to Dictionary.com for some possible definitions:
#1 and #2 don’t seem applicable, and #4 isn’t what I’d call “complimentary.” That leaves #3 and #5.
I decided to find out more about the tumultuous #5. Merriam-Webster notes that “a number of extended, figurative senses of ‘yeasty’ have surfaced, all of which play in some way or another on the excitable, chemical nature of fermentation, such as by connoting unsettled activity or significant change.”
So the word “yeasty” itself is kind of yeasty. Great.
This excitable change definition seems fitting for Dolley Madison, whose life was marked by change. She lost her first husband and a child to yellow fever, and her Quaker community expelled her from the religion when she married the outsider James Madison.
Unlike Dolley, James Madison could not be considered yeasty. As food comparisons go, he was described as a “withered little apple-john” by Washington Irving in 1811 and as a “Slim Jim” by me just now. Their relationship is where the most applicable meaning of Dolley’s yeastiness came in handy, as her youthful exuberance (she was 17 years younger) more than made up for James’s lack of social skills.
Known as the “Lady Presidentess,” she was a consummate host and the secret diplomatic weapon of the Madison Administration. She helped save one picture of George Washington from burning and a thousand parties from boredom. She was absolutely adored in D.C. and across the nation.
Long after James’s death, Dolley continued to be an icon. In 1844, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to grant her the unheard of honor of a seat on the House floor anytime she wanted to visit.
I don’t know if she ever took that seat. What I do know is that in general, Dolley Madison always seemed to rise to the occasion. Which is pretty much the definition of yeasty.
Beautiful post, and FUN! 🙂 I learned a few things by reading it. I love your attention to the idiosyncrasies of words, and how they change over time. I have always felt so alone and archaic in churning over those obscurities. Thank you for being public!
Your post reminds me of how reading Sir Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” as a young man, it introduced me to many English words that while still recognizable, were used so wonderfully different than how we use them now. One example being “lever”. While the word invokes the mental pictures of lifting with a crowbar, or the tilting balance of a scale, it is actually used the same way that we now use the word “prefer”. But it was so much more stimulating than “prefer”, because “prefer” has no concrete imagery like leverage bars or scale tables to associate with it. Enjoyed your post!
I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, thank you! You’re making me want to read Le Morte D’Arthur. I love exploring words and how they change — check out the “Word Nerd” category on the site if you haven’t already.
thank you, i will
I’ll never hear or say the word ‘yeasty’ again without thinking of all the variations of it – and Dolly Madison. Thank you for your great research and writing style.
Dolley had her dark side though. While visiting Montpellier, they told us about how she wouldn’t let her longtime slave maid visit her brother on his deathbed, though the trip between Washington DC and Montpellier wasn’t that far. The rest is the family had been sold years before and he was her only remaining family.
She also didn’t free the slaves, as James had wanted, on his death. She consistently indulged her profligate son, and the slaves were sold, in part, to cover his debts, as were James’ papers. Classic enabling behavior of an overly permissive mother with a spoiled child…