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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.
Today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday.
- Let's Look At The Language
'We'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne'
By Christine A. Lindberg A song that "owns" a particular day of the year is rare.
Here comes Santa Claus ... where'd he get that snazzy red suit?
Years ago, I had a book of letters written to Santa Claus, and I remember that, among all the messages of "bring me this," "bring me that," and "I'll leave you a plate of cookies," one little boy had written, "Dear Santa, Where did you get your snazzy red suit?" I wouldn't be surprised if the author of that question grew up to be either a reporter or a fashion consultant, but in any event, I hope he got an answer to his question.
Where do I plug in these Electric Prunes?
Those of us who make the family feasts of Thanksgiving and Christmas magically appear on the table know there's nothing magic about it.
The sometimes-cryptic language of company names
Cream cheese originated in 1872 as the result of William Lawrence's failure to duplicate the French cheese Neufchatel. By 1880, he knew his "accidental cheese" was good enough for distribution, so he packaged it in foil wrappers and called it Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
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
Not quite an 'Ode to Pepé Le Pew' after gross, stinky encounter
My previous column ended with the words "sweet dreams," which are nice if you can get 'em, but sometimes the occasion of slumber time is a few degrees short of sweet.
What will my dream-doctor say about this orgledream in my head?
I just read a snippet of folklore that tells me "a dream of grasshoppers means that something is confusing you."
Names of hurricanes don't match reality
When the storm named Irene barreled up into Edmeston four weeks ago, I didn't think I'd still be looking down upon the vestiges of her destruction from my upstairs windows.
Sometimes an unremarkable day is the one we should cherish the most
Ten years ago today, it was a summery Sept. 10 here in Central New York. The temperature hovered in the 80s and there was an occasional drizzle here and there.
'Don't miss it, don't even be late' The Great New York State Fair is here
"Our state fair is a great state fair! Don't miss it, don't even be late. It's dollars to doughnuts that our state fair is the best state fair in our state!"
Some of it's all Greek to me, but mostly it's just herbaceously aromatic
For the past five years, I've been a container gardener (having given up the backyard to my dogs).
Like gods on the heptagram, so are the days of our week
'Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?' just not the same
When the Baltimore Orioles' third baseman took the field on May 30, 1982, not even Nostradamus could have foreseen that one of the most celebrated streaks in baseball was beginning at that very moment. The player was Cal Ripken Jr., whose 2,131st consecutive game on Sept. 6, 1995, surpassed Lou Gehrig's "unsurpassable" record.
A frabjous Fourth of July to everyone!
If there's one date in history that every American can cite, it's the day that the Continental Congress gave its nod to the Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776.
I wonder if ancient Romans ever put sanctions on that two-faced Janus
Someone recently asked me if I could explain the meaning of the word "sanction.
June is bustin' out all over!
When "Carousel," the second stage musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, opened on Broadway on April 19, 1945, the audience left the theater in buoyant spirits.
Go ahead and have a rat on a stick, but please don't call it a lollipop
I recent read that this Tuesday is National Escargot Day. I was unable to find any compelling evidence that this is an official national day for any nation in particular, but it does seem that throughout the U.K. and North America, French restaurants have happily adopted the day as a time to celebrate their garlicky little mollusks.
Onomatopoeic power of wheatgrass souffle
“The formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named” is the New Oxford American Dictionary’s definition of “onomatopoeia” (Ah-Nuh-mah-tuh-PEE-uh).
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.”
There's nothing like a good spoonerism to tickle a bunny phone
The English economist Sir Roy Forbes Harrod (1900"1978) once said that, compared to all the scholars he had known at Oxford and Cambridge, the Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844"1930) was the most exceptional in "scholarship, devotion to duty, and wisdom." There is no reason to question Harrod's assessment, but that's not exactly the imprint by which Spooner is best remembered.
- 'We'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne'