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Let's Look At The Language

April 23, 2011

The language of Benjamin Franklin, in whatever name he used

When Benjamin Franklin died 221 years ago this month, the entire Western world mourned, yet his gravestone reads (in full), “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin 1790.” That seems impossibly austere, as his epitaph could have included “... Founding Father, signer of the Declaration of Independence, eldest signer of the U.S. Constitution, statesman, diplomat, political theorist, scientist, inventor, America’s first postmaster, innovator of the lending library, visionary of the fire department, printer, writer, publisher, satirist ...” It’s so seriously hard to know where to stop, that the unadorned inscription begins to make sense. The man, after all, speaks for himself.

That Franklin was a polymath (a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning) is indisputable. Beyond his scientific and literary intellect, he was also remarkably astute in matters of society and politics, and his knack for diplomacy was unparalleled. In the Colonies and abroad, Franklin was a standout personality. Noted for his engaging native wit, he was as comfortable in a working-class Philadelphia tavern as he was in a European statehouse. Of course we can never know the whole of Franklin’s words and thoughts, but we do have a fairly nice slice of “the language of Franklin” (including his acclaimed autobiography), thanks to the miracle of the printed word, the promotion of which was one of his most cherished causes.

Consistent with his polymathic tendencies, Franklin wrote essays, letters, articles and verse, all from the varied vantage points of inventor, critic, social commentator, advice columnist, humorist, civic activist ... you name it, he could be it.

When his printer brother James refused to print his letters in the Boston paper New-England Courant, 16-year-old apprentice Ben submitted an amusing piece under the pseudonym Silence Dogood.

It was so well-received that 13 more letters from the widow Dogood soon followed. The series was abruptly ended when James angrily discovered the true authorship.

Lucky for us, the young Ben Franklin fled the restraints of his brother and took refuge in Philadelphia, where his contributions to American English would flourish. In his 20s, he adopted his most famous pseudonym with the publication of “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” a best-selling Colonial annual supposedly written by Richard Saunders. As “Poor Richard,” Franklin had immense fun with words, creating puzzles, household hints and nuggets of wisdom.

Befitting April (when “our date with the IRS” has a tendency to evoke thoughts of fiscal responsibility), I leave you with the following excerpts from “The Way to Wealth,” a 1758 essay compiled by Franklin as a collection of advice from Poor Richard. Now, these may sound too trite or old-fashioned to be of current value — and yet, it just may be that the most costly financial advice we can get today does not appreciably improve on the timeless common sense of a certain Mr. Saunders:

“Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him.” “There will be sleeping enough in the grave.” “Get what you can, and what you get, hold.” “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” “Plough deep while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.” “A fat kitchen makes a lean will.” “If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as of getting.” “Beware of little expenses: a small leak will sink a great ship.” “He that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing.” “Creditors have better memories than debtors.”

And finally, if you think your taxes are too high: “We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly.”

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?  E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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