Required reading for any language person

I’ve encountered my share of know-it-alls and fussbudgets in the editing (and writing) world, many of whom probably really believe they are doing God’s work and making the world a better place by pointing out every single misspelling, misplaced comma, or unconventional usage.

I wrote about the topic earlier this year when people corrected President Obama’s grammar on Reddit, but this blogger’s series of posts are far more graceful and informative. If you work with words, either writing or editing, or are interested in language at all, her posts should be required reading.

Fact is, language is hard, and some people are better at it than others. And there are a lot of people who only think they’re good at it. Best policy, as with many things, is to be less judgmental.

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 Smithsonian.com 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.

No one is immune from race codes

Add to the list of things I didn’t know: Monday can be a racial code white people use for black people.

Interesting. So once I started looking around at other racial codes, I stumbled onto this one on the Very Smart Brothas site: 2520.

Ever hear of someone called a 2520? Me, neither. Looks like it’s something white people get called — 25 represents “Y,” the 25th letter of the alphabet, and 20 is “T,” the 20th. YT. Whitey. Get it? I now refer to myself as a 2520. Is that wrong?