Fifty years ago, on Nov. 17, 1973, President Richard Nixon uttered a simple, five-word sentence that would come to define his legacy: “I am not a crook.”
Nixon was holding a televised question-and-answer session at a convention at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. for newspaper editors, and those in attendance pressed him on the looming Watergate scandal. Responding to a question about his tax payments, Nixon insisted that he “never profited from public service.”
“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” he said. “Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got.” Less than nine months later, Nixon was forced to leave office, despite averring “I have never been a quitter.” Long after his presidency ended, his infamous “not a crook” line would resonate as an ironic summation of the Watergate era.
Nixon sought to distance himself from a label that has often been applied to people perceived as dishonest or unscrupulous. But behind the word “crook” lies a history with many twists and turns.
Etymologists trace “crook” back to an Old Norse word, “krokr,” which could refer to a hook or a barb. The same Scandinavian root can be found in such words as “crochet,” “crotchet” and “encroach” (which originally meant “to catch with a hook”).
In Middle English, “crook” could be used for a variety of implements with a bent or hooked form, like a sickle, a pot hook or a staff used by a shepherd. The bendiness of “crook” lent itself to other odd shapes, like the curve of a river or a twisty path. More metaphorically, “crook” got applied to tricks or bits of artifice. The rhyming phrase “by hook or by crook,” which dates back to the 14th century, can mean “by any means necessary,” whether the aim is achieved fairly or unfairly.
The adjective “crooked” originally just meant “bent” but eventually could also signify deceptive or treacherous behavior. The King James Bible of 1611 used “crooked” to translate Hebrew and Greek terms that could refer literally to winding pathways or figuratively to moral conduct that strays from the straight and narrow.