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Let's Look At The Language

February 12, 2011

The language of Abraham Lincoln

Today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

I just thought I'd mention that, seeing that the day has lost much of its status since the 1980s when the nationally observed date of George Washington's birthday morphed into Presidents Day. Sorry, Abe (and, for that matter, you too, George), you've been demoted to "just one of the guys." I have to tell you, I find that pretty disgraceful. It's Abraham Lincoln, for the love of God. We can't protect and preserve just one single day in the year to remember this unparalleled individual? For nearly 150 years, historians have speculated on the outcome of American history had Abraham Lincoln not become president, and various probable scenarios do not suggest that we would have avoided the devastation of Civil War, but that the eventual restoration of the Union could have been hopelessly jeopardized.

Of the many singularities ascribed to Lincoln, one of the most undisputed is the fact that, not only was he not a handsome man, he was arguably the most plug-ugly man to occupy the White House. If that remark sounds a bit startling, there's good reason. That un-pretty face is attached to someone so iconically etched into the American consciousness, that we can only feel reverence, not revulsion, when we look at it. No one has ever transcended the superficial more perfectly than Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln had no delusions about his appearance. In fact, when a critic accused him of being two-faced, Lincoln famously responded, "If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?" Stand-up comics everywhere wish they could be half as sharp-witted. It's a safe bet that the Illinois lawyers who went up against him in his "prairie lawyer" days felt much the same way. Of one courtroom opponent, he once said, "He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met." Lincoln could not be topped when it came to off-the-cuff zingers, even in his most somber role as commander in chief during the Civil War. When one of his generals pompously sent his dispatches from Headquarters in the Saddle, Lincoln's dry reaction was, "The trouble with Hooker is that he's got his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be."

For what it's worth, I feel exactly the same way about an American government that doesn't think Abraham Lincoln is worthy of a federal holiday. There's not much about our 16th president that I don't hold in the highest regard, and as a lover of language, I certainly have to include the great wealth of memorable words that he left us. Few presidents have enriched the language of American history with remarkably brilliant wit and wisdom, and Abraham Lincoln is without question a leader among that elite. On this day that marks his 202nd birthday, let me leave you with a few more gems from the Great Emancipator ...

In an address to an Indiana Regiment: "Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

When imposed upon for his endorsement of a certain book: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."

When asked how he felt about the 1862 New York state elections (Lincoln's party lost every seat across the board): "Somewhat like the boy in Kentucky who stubbed his toe while running to see his sweetheart. The boy said he was too big to cry, and far too badly hurt to laugh."

In an 1854 speech in Peoria, Ill.: "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent."

And finally, a sentiment borrowed and paraphrased a thousand times over, but still best as Lincoln first said it: "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Birthday cheers to you, Mr. President.

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 Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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