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Let's Look At The Language

November 5, 2011

Humorist Will Rogers: One of the crown jewels in American language

Defined as "a humorous writer, performer or artist," a humorist could technically be anyone who makes you laugh, but my concept of a humorist is not nearly so broad. A humorist, I would say, has a certain brand of clever, thoughtful intelligence that elevates humor to something subtle yet accessible, something dry yet whimsical.

At its best, American humorism represents some of our most-cherished national language. This Friday marked the 132nd birthday of one of the true giants among American humorists: Will Rogers. In his native Oklahoma, Nov. 4 is Will Rogers Day, and although 1,200 miles away, I've been inspired to create my own observance: I call it "American Humorists Weekend."

I've no delusions of its becoming a Hallmark Holiday, but for this weekend I'm content to spend a few private hours savoring the printed and recorded words of some of my favorites: Mark Twain ("Familiarity breeds contempt -- and children."), George S. Kaufman ("The kind of doctor I want is one who, when he's not examining me, is home studying medicine."), Dorothy Parker ("Four be the things I'd been better without: Love, curiosity, freckles and doubt."), Garrison Keillor ("Years ago, manhood was an opportunity for achievement, and now it is a problem to be overcome."), Ogden Nash ("Home is heaven and orgies are vile, But you need an orgy once in a while."), James Thurber ("Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?"), and of course, and especially, Will Rogers ("The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other.").

Of all the aforementioned names, Will Rogers was by far the least sophisticated in his speech, the least bound by grammatical perfection. On the contrary, he won over his early audiences as a rope-twirling cowboy on the vaudeville stage. His folksy patter was at the core of his success, and his down-home delivery of all sorts of social and political commentary amused even those who were the subject of his critical observations. His use of the language was nothing short of brilliant in that he knew how to verbally "go after" people in the highest places in government, business, and even organized crime, without making enemies out of any of them!

Will Rogers had a particular knack for zeroing in on topical humor that has remained remarkably timeless. It may sound like a fresh sentiment, but it was 80 or 90 years ago that Will Rogers first said, "What this country needs is dirtier fingernails -- and cleaner minds." By the 1920s, Will Rogers, known as "the voice of the average American," was the foremost humorist of the American people, a role he played out on radio and in newspapers. The influence of his words on a nation in the aftermath of World War I, during the profligacy of Prohibition, and throughout the catastrophe of the Great Depression was immeasurable. He knew better than anyone how to relate to people's personal and collective lives with a familiar, welcoming language that was at once empathethic, wry, insightful, homespun, and, most of all, reassuring. In dire times, he was one of the few who always seemed to know just what to say. Never condescending, never hopelessly bleak, never blindly optimistic, the language of Will Rogers was earthy, real, entertaining, and authentically American.

It is no wonder that when the news hit the wires on Aug. 15, 1935, that Will Rogers had been killed in a plane crash along with pilot Wiley Post near Barrow, Alaska, the entire nation mourned. For a dedication ceremony on Nov. 4, 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to a still-grieving America in a radio broadcast. He began with these words: "Friends of Will Rogers, this afternoon we pay grateful homage to the memory of a man who helped the nation to smile. And after all, I doubt there is among us a more useful citizen than the one who holds the secret of vanishing gloom." Amen.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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