The language of Abraham Lincoln

I got to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” recently, and it was a dazzling film. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, was incredible, but he had a great script to work with. Screenwriter Tony Kushner really nailed it. Ben Zimmer at the Boston Globe writes about how Kushner pulled it off:

One key to making the language historically suitable, he told me, was having the 20-volume print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary close at hand. A complete set of the OED—which includes deep histories of all its entry words, with examples—was one of his first purchases when he started earning money from his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, “Angels in America,” Kushner said. Through the many drafts of “Lincoln,” he checked every word that he thought might not have been appropriate for 1865.

The 20-volume OED is about $1,300, by the way. But the dialogue in “Lincoln” really is a treat to listen to, so I’d say it was money well-spent. And Tommy Lee Jones’ character (Thaddeus Stevens) has some especially good lines. Well-done, Mr. Kushner. Very impressive work. I am a little disappointed, though, that grousle isn’t a word anywhere.

And, again, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was flawless — and surprising. Add to the long (and getting longer) list of things I did not know: Abraham Lincoln apparently had a high-pitched voice. Not high-pitched like a woman or a crying cat, but higher than what you’d expect coming from such a large man — in stature and presence. Civil War scholar Harold Holzer wrote last year at about what Lincoln might have sounded like:

When Holzer was researching his 2004 book Lincoln at Cooper Union, he noticed an interesting consistency in the accounts of those who attended Lincoln’s speaking tour in February and March 1860. “They all seem to say, for the first ten minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured,” says Holzer.

Same with Daniel Day-Lewis. After about 10 minutes, the incongruous voice starts to make sense and it just becomes part of the character.

Here’s an interview where Daniel Day-Lewis talks about finding the voice he used.

The trailer for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

Tommy Lee Jones using words as weapons in “Lincoln.”

Of course the very best Daniel Day-Lewis character ever is Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York.” So here’s a clip from that movie for no reason at all. Enjoy.

An exciting development in political punctuation!

In the waning days of this presidential election season, the two major campaigns are doing everything they can to squeeze out every last vote.

It’s an exciting time in American politics. So exciting, in fact, that the Obama campaign decided it was time to add an exclamation point to its “Forward” slogan. This replaces the period, which, oddly, generated a little geeky controversy.

While most polls show the two camps are close, this move by Obama is likely to propel his prospects. If he manages to take this election, it will be because of this bold punctuation decision.

Mark my words.

Before. Just a boring old period.
After. Same slogan, but now with more excitement!

A heaping helping of alphabet soup

I had a boss once who hated acronyms and abbreviations so much that he even discouraged us from using FBI.

“Alphabet soup,” he called it.

I get it. It can get pretty jarring to the reader if copy is littered with long stretches of all-caps words. And also, unfamiliar acronyms or abbreviations can sound jargony.

A while back, I was reading a Chicago Reader story that referred to an “LGBTQ-focused service organization.” LGBTQ? I was familiar with LGBT: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. But Q?

A Facebook friend suggested the Q was for queer, which seems a little redundant considering queer could conceivably cover gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual. (The reclaiming of a negative word and embracing it is a fascinating bit of semantic change in itself, but a topic for another day.)

But then I stumbled onto this newspaper headline from Roosevelt University’s newspaper, the Torch: College of Education Dean pushes for a GLBTQIA welcome.

GLBTQIA would have given my old boss an AMI (heart attack). Not to mention the capitalizing of “Dean.”

That is a lot of letters. According to the article, the Q is for questioning, which makes more sense to me. I is for intersex, and A is for ally. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with intersex till I looked it up.

Seems like this phrase is getting a little out of control. But I don’t have any better ideas, so carry on.

The view from the other side of the AP story

At some point earlier this year, I buckled up the tool belt and went to work on this old house in Colorado to prepare it for selling. Not too long after we sold it, The Associated Press was asking its Twitter followers if anyone had any thoughts on housing and real estate. Well, we had some thoughts, considering we sold our house in only 10 days. Turns out that if you have a nice product and price it right, real estate does OK. Anyway, we couldn’t get back to the reporter in time for the story.

I guess they kept our info, though, because today, Adrienne and I were interviewed for what sounds like a pretty extensive package about politics and the economy.

It’s weird talking to a reporter. You’re talking and talking, then after awhile, it occurs to you that you’ve been rambling for some time and that you’ve probably said 500 stupid things that might end up in print somewhere with your real name. It’s possible that I even talked about our cats.

Why, yes, Mr. Journalist, I’d love to discuss the economy with you and offer some Average Person Insight. But first, let me tell you about my cats.

It’s a good reminder about what makes a good reporter: the ability to get information so effortlessly from people, to make them trust you. He’s asking the right questions in the right way, and the subject feels a lot like it’s just a conversation, not an interview. Nice job, Dave Carpenter. It’s easy to forget, I think, that compelling news and information isn’t easy to produce.

Not sure if anything I said will be used in the article, but it was interesting to be a part of it. My familiarity with AP stories is from the other side of the desk, where they’re so often gutted to fit in a briefs package. Glad to have experienced the other side of it, even if I’m quoted saying something dumb.

Sometimes spelling is extra important

I’m usually not one to get too twisted up over language errors and typos and such. English is hard, and mistakes will happen. I might have even made some myself in the past, though I can’t remember when.

At any rate, most of the time, I’m a live-and-let-live kind of person and don’t take great pleasure in pointing out the deficiencies of others. But context is important. When you’re a teacher, for instance, involved in a high-profile strike in a high-profile city, you might want your protest sign to be error-free.

Wonder if there’s a market for sign proofreading.

But how is this different from the president’s lapse I wrote about the other day? Good question. Shouldn’t the president be held to high language standards, too? Of course. I guess, to me, there are a couple of differences: First, the medium is different. This is a sign created for the public to see. Obama, on the other hand, was having a conversation that, while publicly visible, was essentially the same as speech. In the Reddit forum, the manner of communication can be less formal and more forgiving. Second, this sign is at a public demonstration of teachers. So while it might not be any different in substance, its perception is certainly more important than a typo on a topic unrelated to teaching or education.

Or maybe this is just some kind of anti-education bias. Who knows. I used to always worry about misspelling a word or getting something wrong when I edited an education or spelling bee story. It seemed better to make a mistake on some other kind of story than on one about language. But again, like I said earlier: Mistakes will happen.

Photo by emily_quirk


Why does Obama hate English?

The president of the United States visited Reddit the other day and chatted up the Internets. Of course during the talk, there just had to be some doofuses chime in and correct Obama’s grammar.

I know people are passionate about language. I’m passionate about language, too. But there’s something really ugly about people who correct other people like this. Aside from educational and newsroom environments, I’ve never been corrected in person. Know why? Because it’s stupid, and only creeps do it. With the Web’s anonymity, though, everyone’s a linguistics professor who just has to let you know that you ended a sentence with a preposition. Normally, I just roll my eyes and move on, but you’re seriously going to call the president out on a / an?

Knock it off, people of the Internet. Correcting people’s grammar (and by the way, most of the dumb things you’re “correcting” aren’t wrong) is not helpful or illuminating. It’s pitiful and irritating. It’s the act of a bully — worse, actually, because with an actual bully, you can fight back. With Internet bullies, you’re just swinging at air.

I’m probably overreacting. Thanks for letting me vent.

Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt your vibrant conversation, but I thought you’d like to know that you just used “who,” when the objective “whom” would have been more appropriate. Ah, yes, you’re welcome. Carry on.

Obama’s new slogan is just fine

So apparently there’s some concern about Obama’s new slogan: “Forward.” (Specifically, the period at the end there is vexing.)

“Even for some in the president’s orbit, the added punctuation slams the brakes on a word supposed to convey momentum,” the Wall Street Journal says.

Nothing wrong here. What’s next?

Well, the president hasn’t called yet to ask for my opinion, but he’s probably just busy. At any rate, the slogan’s fine. Better than fine, actually. I think the period works quite well and adds some weight and finality to what might otherwise be a flat word. Sometimes, for emphasis, when we say something we’re serious about, we say “period” at the end to let others know we’re not screwing around. We’re going to Disneyland. Period.

The period in Obama’s slogan lets us know it’s not up for debate. We’re going forward. Period.