Posted February 12th, 2009 at 6:37 pm (UTC-4)
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When I was knee high to a bobcat, as my mother liked to say, the birthday of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was a huge day in school. We reviewed and recited the many accomplishments of “Honest Abe,” the “Rail-Splitter.”

This classic photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln was created by Alexander Gardner, a Mathew Brady associate who more famously shot many haunting Civil War battlefield scenes

We pointedly did not learn in second grade the degree to which southerners loathed “the Great Emancipator” for declaring their slaves free and for his insistence upon preserving the union of 34 states and quelling the rebellion of 13 of them. Many in his time called Lincoln “The Ape Baboon of the Prairie.” Even as 11-year-olds, we’d have surely known that “ape” and “baboon” are pretty redundant.

Now, on February 12th, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and the day of this posting, few are mocking Lincoln. In fact, as the Washington Post observed in one of its numerous tributes, Old Abe is “venerated as a national saint, part man, part myth.”

Lincoln got more attention in our Ohio school than even George Washington, our first president, whose birth date comes along just eight days after Lincoln’s. That’s because we were in class reading Lincoln stories and examining our Lincoln pennies and Lincoln $5 bills on Lincoln’s big day, but were home building snowmen on Washington’s Birthday because it was a national holiday.

George, Meet Abe

Years later, in 1968, Congress moved the Washington’s Birthday commemoration to the third Monday of February, pretty much assuring, if my calendar math is correct, that it would never again fall on the date of his birth. No matter. The nation craved another three-day holiday weekend. Three years later Richard Nixon declared that all chief executives – including lesser lights like Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur and himself, and not just Washington – deserved some props, so he reconstituted the holiday as “Presidents’ Day.”

Washington and Lincoln
Washington and Lincoln get equal billing in this 1865 lithograph as the “noblest sons” of Columbia, a figure often used to represent the nation

Didn’t work. Teachers and advertisers brushed aside the James J. Polkses and John Tylers and assigned the day to George and Abe, virtually guaranteeing at least one payday a year for Washington and Lincoln impersonators.

Monday the 16th is the holiday this year. And this time, Honest Abe is outshining “the Father of His Country” for attention because Lincoln would be hitting the Big 2-0-0 if humans lived into a third century. The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s Web site is bursting with Lincoln tributes, tales, trivia, and lists of events. There’s even one in Annapolis, Maryland, called “The Moustache,” which is curious because Lincoln, though bearded, didn’t have one. This turns out to be an opera, of all things, about a fictional meeting between some Baltimore fellow and John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s actual assassin. A stretch, if you ask me.

Lincoln did not mind his image as a simple Kentucky country boy. He sometimes referred to himself as “Log Cabin Lincoln”

Everywhere you look, someone is hawking Lincolniana kitsch: miniature busts, Honest Abe T-shirts, cheap stovepipe hats, photos of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, postcard views of the humble Kentucky log cabin where he was born, and fake Lincoln beards. (They all have to be fake, don’t they?) Lincoln portraits, too, including one in which someone imposed a trim, Lincoln-style beard onto President Obama.

Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, designed by Daniel Chester French, resembles a Greek temple. Its 36 Doric columns represent the number of states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865

In one of the celebratory touches of the Lincoln Bicentennial, the reverse, or “tails,” side of the Lincoln penny has been redesigned. A depiction of the Kentucky cabin replaces the longstanding, and far more imposing, view of the Lincoln Memorial.

The $5 bill had already been reworked in 2007, but for anti-counterfeiting reasons. Lincoln’s image was changed from one pose for a Mathew Brady portrait to another; Abe looks to his left on the old bill and his right on the new one.

The contents of Lincoln’s pockets at the time of his death – as well as a Lincoln life mask and casting of his hands – are displayed at Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot

Ironically, when Lincoln was assassinated while watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington in 1865, the only currency in his pocket was a $5 bill. But it was a Confederate fiver that most certainly did not contain his likeness. No one is positive why he was carrying the worthless southern scrip; likely it was a souvenir from his visit to the fallen Confederate capital of Richmond earlier in the month.

Lincoln, Lincoln, He’s Our Man
Mount Rushmore
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum selected the four presidents to be depicted on Mount Rushmore. Lincoln was the most difficult to carve in the granite because of his beard

It’s Lincoln Time in America, all right, especially in Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska and in “Lincoln” cities and towns in at least 23 other states; on the old, mostly two-lane Lincoln Highway, which starts in Pennsylvania and winds west; at the monumental Mount Rushmore sculpture where Lincoln’s was one of four presidential likenesses blasted into a mountainside in South Dakota about 80 years ago; at the Lincoln Memorial; on the campuses of the six U.S. (and four foreign) colleges or universities that have Lincoln’s name in theirs; at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; and at Lincoln-brand automobile dealerships. Celebrations are less high-spirited perhaps, at the last of these, given the economy.

You could almost imagine the elephants and giraffes at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo calling each other “Abe” or “Abby” during all the excitement. Or maybe not.

Abraham Lincoln is a much-acclaimed fellow any time of year, at least outside of the once-rebellious Dixie. In the subtitle of his 2008 book Abraham Lincoln, a Man of Faith and Courage, historian Joe Wheeler calls him our “most admired president,” and millions of Americans would agree. While it is an exaggeration to say that he “freed the slaves,” his Emancipation Proclamation did declare slaves under the control of the southern states to be freedmen and women. It was up to Lincoln’s army and navy to win the Civil War and make it so. Notably, the proclamation said nothing about border states like Kentucky and Missouri and Maryland – nominally still in the Union and still embracing that unholy institution.

Not alone a savior
Lincoln gets a prominent position in cartoonist Thomas Nast’s 1865 depiction of the emancipation of southern slaves

Nor did Lincoln decree enslaved African Americans free out of deep moral conviction. “What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union,” he said. He knew that word of his proclamation would spread throughout the South, weakening slaveholders’ grip. In a letter to New York editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln made his intentions clear: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave,” he wrote, “I would do it.”

It was not until December 18, 1865 – eight months and three days after Lincoln’s death – when a sufficient number of states had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that slavery became illegal throughout the land.

It cannot be said, though it often is of Lincoln, that one person “saved the Union.” Two tigers on his general staff, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, had a lot to do with that. Lincoln had dithered before replacing three ineffective commanders-in-chief of the Union Army, but he made the change to Grant – previously a dyspeptic, slave-owning, mediocre officer – because Grant gave no quarter to the enemy. “Tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks,” Lincoln said. “I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”

A villain’s treachery
Satan tempts Booth
In this 1865 litho, John Wilkes Booth is tempted by a Mephistophelian Satan to shoot Abraham Lincoln, who, upon close inspection, can be seen in his theatre seat

John Wilkes Booth, the accomplished actor and impassioned southern sympathizer who, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” – “death to tyrants” – would mortally shoot Lincoln that April night at the theatre, certainly knew Lincoln had preserved the Union. Or, to his way of thinking, had thwarted the lawful desire of sovereign Confederate states to leave it. Seventeen months before Booth fired the fatal shot, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had attended another play at Ford’s – one in which Booth starred. In Katherine Helm’s 1928 biography of Mrs. Lincoln, Mary Clay, the daughter of Lincoln’s minister to Russia, recalled that evening:

Ford's Theatre
Here’s the “Lincoln Box,” where the president was shot, as it appears in the just-reopened and refurbished Ford’s Theatre

“Wilkes Booth played the part of villain. The box was right on the stage, with a railing around it. Mr. Lincoln sat next to the rail, I next to Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and the other gentlemen farther around. Twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln’s face; when he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, ‘Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?’”

An Evening in the Log Hut
Young Abe Lincoln reads by the light of the fireplace in this 1868 “An Evening in the Log Hut” lithograph

More books – thousands of them – have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American. Elsewhere in this Lincoln Bicentennial Year, you can search out stories about Lincoln’s religious faith or the lack of it, his seven epic “Lincoln-Douglas” debates in which Lincoln sought to unseat U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, and myriad other topics. Want to know about Lincoln’s two vice presidents? His childhood nights spent reading by dim candlelight, or his teenage prowess as a woodchopper? His own wartime service in the “Black Hawk” Indian war? The hunt for, and death of Booth, and trials of his alleged conspirators, and the executions of some of them? Now’s a perfect time to look.

But there are several other facets of the man and his character that have long held my fascination and may tweak yours as well:

Lincoln profile
One gets a different, side view of Lincoln’s famous beard in this unusual left profile

America’s most famous beard. Republican supporters had urged Lincoln to grow chin whiskers to add a statesmanlike aura to his gangly, disheveled appearance and to distract from his phenomenally long neck. Beards weren’t seen as anti-establishment or professorial back then; they were the rage in the high society set and the general officer corps. But Lincoln waited until the days just after his election as president in November 1860 to sport one. An 11-year-old girl, Grace Bedell, had written Lincoln, advising him to grow a beard: “I have got 4 brother’s [sic],” she wrote, “and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you[;] you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.” We know that this impressed the new president, because he ordered his inaugural train, bound from his Illinois home to Washington, D.C., to stop in Grace’s hometown of Westfield, New York, where Lincoln sought her out.

Presidential candidate Lincoln
Presidential candidate Lincoln, still sans beard, strikes a calm pose. His presidency would be anything but

• “Honest Abe.” Stories of Lincoln’s sterling character abound. Some were doubtless created by “spin doctors” of the era, but there are so many, from so many sources, that Lincoln’s reputation for rectitude is rarely questioned. More than once while clerking in a country store, it is said, Lincoln walked a long way to deliver a few cents he had overcharged or goods to those he had inadvertently short-changed. When he wrote a memorable speech that he delivered while running for the U.S. Senate in which he warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” his law partner, William Herndon, advised him to delete a statement that “a government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free.” Proffering an end to human bondage would be an unwise policy, Herndon said, in a nation that was close to breaking asunder over slavery. “No matter about the policy,” Lincoln told him. “The proposition has been true for six thousand years, and I will deliver it as it is written.”

Asked one day whether he was a religious man, Lincoln said he was a member of no church but followed the same religious code as that of a farmer he knew: “When I do good, I feel good, and when I do bad, I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”

Such were the sorts of tales we learned in school, and a Cleveland friend, Susan Griffith, added this in a note to me:

“When I was in the third grade in Casper, Wyoming, there was a series of biographies in our classroom library. The first book I pulled off the shelf was about Abraham Lincoln. It probably was one of the first big books that I read. I just remember his reading by candlelight in the attic of his home, how there was snow outside, and it was cold. It reminded me of Iowa [where Susan spent her earliest years] and how the upstairs of the old farmhouse only got heat from what rose from the downstairs. He also seemed so tall and huge a man. Later on the way home from visiting my sister at her college in southern Illinois in 1966, my dad, mom, sister, and I stopped by his historic home in Springfield and saw the bed he slept in. It was so small compared to a contemporary bed and I thought either he was short or his feet must have stuck out of the end of the bed.”

So Lincoln wasn’t only honest, at least by sympathetic accounts. He was also a “tall drink of water,” to use a country term. Which brings me to . . .

In this photo with his security chief, Allan Pinkerton and General John McClernand, you get an idea of Lincoln’s great height, even minus the stovepipe hat

• Lincoln’s Odd Appearance. First of all, can we agree that he was not what you’d call much of a looker, probably even by 19th Century standards? He was 1.9 meters tall – about a full head taller than the average American male of his time. And a lot more about him – face, hands, arms, legs, and feet – was long and thin as well. Herndon said Lincoln had “a sunken breast,” and some accounts describe him as walking with a loose-jointed lope, fueling the “ape” taunts of his haters.

Speculating on the reasons for Lincoln’s spindly, emaciated appearance has become a cottage industry. In the 1960s, a long-posthumous diagnosis of Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissues, was advanced in many journals. Marfan sufferers are typically tall, have disproportionately long arms and unusually shaped chests, and are nearsighted. All of these descriptions appear to have applied to Lincoln, and if he also had other Marfan indicators like heart irregularities and painful joint inflammation, it would help to explain his frequent brooding.

Lincoln doesn’t look odd, exactly, in this portrait. But you get an idea of his narrow head, sunken chest and unusually long arms

But the Marfan theory has, to use a journal term, “lost currency” of late. In his 2008 book, Dr. John Sotos, an eminent former Johns Hopkins University cardiologist, postulated that Lincoln exhibited a rare genetic cancer syndrome called “MEN2B” and would have died from cancer within a year had Booth’s bullet not felled him. Though no one has yet gained permission to exhume Lincoln’s bones in Springfield or been given access to rare specimens of Lincoln’s DNA for conclusive study – samples do exist in closely held remnants of his and others’ clothing spattered with his blood – Dr. Sotos minutely examined photos, down to some suspicious bumps on Lincoln’s lips, along with descriptions of his gestures and gait. There is strong evidence that Lincoln’s mother and three of his sons had the killer disease, Sotos writes. “The three sons who had bumpy lips like Lincoln himself died before the age of 20, while the one son with normal lips lived to the age of 82.”

• Lincoln’s brilliant writing. Lincoln had no stable of speechwriters. Or even one, for that matter. He had his own gift of words and a straightforward way of delivering them that was unusual in an era of orotund orators. (I just had to put those two words together. Orotund means lofty, pompous, deliberately bombastic.) Where others fluffed up their importance with high-sounding pronouncements, quotations from the ancients, and melodramatic gestures, Lincoln got to the point without the grandiloquence. He could talk for hours if he had to – he certainly did in the debates with Douglas, the “Little Giant” – but he filled the time with stories laced with wisdom of his own making.

Gettysburg Address
Recent accounts have discredited the old story that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address on an envelope while riding to the cemetery dedication. He may have touched up his remarks on the train, however

Many Americans know the story of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered at the newly dug soldiers’ cemetery on the site of the decisive battle of the Civil War in Pennsylvania. Lincoln was not even the featured speaker; he was asked to say just a few final words of dedication. Beforehand, one of the stentorian types, Edward Everett, fulminated for two hours! Lincoln followed, ever so quietly, for just two minutes. Those in attendance were probably stretching to get over their Everett fatigue. Many later admitted they did not even realize the president had spoken. Yet Lincoln’s 272 words have become some of the most quoted in American history. A sampling:

“…[W]e here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Two other examples of Abraham Lincoln’s power-packed rhetoric:

First inaugural
The central portion of the U.S. Capitol, including its dome, was still under construction when Lincoln first took the oath as president in 1861

From Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861, in which he made a final plea to southerners to remain loyal to the Union:

“We are not enemies, but friends. . . . Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

And one of my favorites, because it underscores Lincoln’s brevity and humility, quoted in the diary of his private secretary, John Milton Hay:

“Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.”

So human, simple and direct, yet profound, Lincoln’s words – which he often jotted onto scraps of paper as thoughts came to him, then retrieved to fit certain occasions – no doubt surprised many an unsuspecting audience, who may have anticipated a country bumpkin. Or that baboon.

• Lincoln’s voice. It would be twelve years after Lincoln’s death before the human voice was first recorded when inventor Thomas Edison captured his own recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a cylinder of tinfoil. So we have only others’ accounts to describe Abraham Lincoln’s timbre.

It should not surprise you that his was not the booming basso of a classical lecturer. Herndon gave this rather unflattering account: “Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him.”

Lincoln’s friend Noah Brooks, a California reporter, noted that the president’s second inaugural address “was received in most profound silence. Every word was clear and audible as the ringing and somewhat shrill tones of Lincoln’s voice sounded over the vast concourse.”

Lincoln’s vocalizing was nothing to marvel at, agreed Abram Bergen, a lawyer of the time. “But whenever he began to talk his eyes flashed and every facial movement helped express his idea and feeling. Then involuntarily vanished all thought or consciousness of his uncouth appearance, or awkward manner, or even his high keyed, unpleasant voice.”

So if you hear one of the thousands of Lincoln impersonators who are performing this month, and the fellow struts and pontificates and bellows, lower your grade of him. And give extra credit to squeakier, geekier renditions.

• Happy Lincoln, despondent Lincoln. When he was about 16, Lincoln wrote this ditty:

“Abraham Lincoln is my name
“And with my pen I wrote the same
“I wrote in both hast[e] and speed
“And left it here for fools to read.”

George McClellan
They didn’t call General George McClellan, a fine engineer but timid fighter, “the Little Napoleon” for nothing

Even in the grimmest days of the Civil War, Lincoln unleashed his dry wit. His top general, George McClellan, a spit-and-polish poseur adept at drilling and inept at fighting, held his commander-in-chief in open contempt, even keeping Lincoln waiting when he came to see him. Asked if this offended him, Lincoln replied, “I’ll even hold McClellan’s horse if that will bring success.”

And this surely fanciful story is recounted on the Web site Angelfire.com:

“Lincoln was stopped one day by a man who stuck a revolver almost into his face. Under the circumstances Lincoln quickly realized that any resistance was unwise. Trying to remain calm, he inquired, ‘What seems to be the matter?’

“‘A long time ago,’ replied the man, ‘I swore that if I ever came across an uglier man than myself I’d shoot him on the spot.’

“‘Well,’ supposedly said Lincoln. ‘Go ahead and shoot me then, because if I am an uglier man than you I don’t want to live.’”

Would you agree that even though Lincoln manages a weak smile in this photograph, sadness and the toll of a trying presidency peek through?

These are droll observations for a man who is painted as a lifelong depressive. In Lincoln’s Melancholy, a recent book on the subject, Joshua Shenk wrote that Lincoln “often wept in public and cited maudlin poetry. . . . As a young man he talked of suicide, and as he grew older, he said he saw the world as hard and grim, made that way by fates and forces of God. ‘No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character,’ declared his colleague Henry Whitney, ‘was so marked and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy,” which former partner Herndon said “dripped from him as he walked.’”

Of course Lincoln had plenty to be sad about, including:

– A lonely childhood, in which he lost his mother when he was 10, a brother who died at birth, and, emotionally, a father who was often elsewhere and who rebuked him for sticking his nose into books.

–The death of his 9-year-old son, Willie, from a typhus-like illness while Lincoln was in the White House. “It is hard, hard, hard to have him die!” Lincoln told friends.

Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln was well bred, abrasive, and high-strung, quite the opposite attributes of her husband

–A volatile marriage to a woman whom the Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert, would one day commit to a mental asylum. Mary Lincoln came from a life of privilege; Abraham from rural poverty. Mary was a spendthrift; Abe was a frugal fellow. Mary was boisterous and temperamental; her husband, who could go for hours without speaking, intensified her outbursts by ignoring them. Mary Lincoln, inconsolable after Willie’s death, slipped into delusions in which she continued to converse with her departed son.

Civil War
Thoughts of scenes like this mass burial following the second battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, in 1864 haunted the melancholic president

–And of course the bloody war, which went badly for a year. This was not some distant conflict. Death was a valley or two away, and the hatred that some people hurled at Lincoln must have been daunting. The very day he was shot, Lincoln told his wife, “We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable.” When Lincoln died the next day, a Texas newspaper declared, “The world is happily rid of a monster that disgraced the form of humanity.”

Republican Party
Lincoln looks every bit the rough-hewn westerner in this 1860 Republican Party poster promoting his presidential candidacy

• Lincoln the “Father of the G.O.P.” When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, he became the nation’s first Republican president. The political party was but six years old, having been founded by a diverse group of men who were outraged over a law that would open some of the West to slavery. Their opposition was more economic than principled; they did not want to compete against unpaid workers on the prairie. There were many other issues that stoked their rise as well, including their support of a new transcontinental railroad. Immediately successful, Republicans soon supplanted the old-line Whigs as the Democrats’ opposition. In the party’s first year of trying, 1854, the Republicans won enough seats to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lincoln rode into office as a “westerner” when Illinois, barely one-third of the way across the country, was still “the West.” He defeated New Yorker William H. Seward. Then, in classic Lincoln fashion when he took office, he appointed Seward as his secretary of state. And other old rivals to high offices as well, putting into action his beliefs that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Over the decades Republicans have made good use of the idea that they are “the party of Lincoln,” but Lincoln’s legend has outgrown any one political brand. Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat, openly admires Lincoln and, in naming four Republicans to his own Cabinet, emulates him. So much so that a Republican blogger recently grumbled that Obama is “drenched in Lincoln.”

‘We’ll Sing to Abe Our Song’
The “wigwam” to which this song about candidate Lincoln refers was not an Indian tipi. It was the name of a wooden building constructed in Chicago for the 1860 Republican convention

There have been hundreds of songs about Lincoln, many written in the years immediately following his assassination. I never learned the words to “Abraham’s Tea Party,” the “Emancipation Quickstep,” “Lincoln Schottisch” (whatever a “schottisch” is), or “Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness.” But I remember, dimly, either my own singing in school, or one of my children’s singing for me, this Lincoln verse, set to the old children’s tune, “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”

Ready, class? Sing along, now!

“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,

“You were brave.

“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,

“You were good.

“You stood for what was right,

“You did not give up the fight,

“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,

“You were good.”


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Dither. To nervously fuss while trying to make a decision. In the long-running “Dagwood” comic strip, office worker Dagwood Bumstead’s indecisive, never-satisfied boss was named “Mr. Dithers.”

Dixie. There are many theories advanced about the origin of this nickname for the Deep South states. One is that it ties to the survey of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, called the “Mason-Dixon” line, that is often used as the informal boundary between North and South. Another traces to $10 banknotes issued in French-speaking Louisiana prior to the Civil War. They were known as “dixes” or “dixies.”

Dyspeptic. Sour, morose, grouchy. Dyspepsia is a recognized medical ailment, involving stomach pain caused by ulcers or other conditions that certainly do not lighten the sufferer’s mood.

Fulminate. To rant and rave and fume. The word is often applied to speakers who make a habit of, and a living from, denouncing others.

Grandiloquence. High-flown style; grandiose prose. Note that the word is not “grandeloquence.”

Kitcsch. Cheap, tasteless, often garish art and collectibles. The German or Yiddish word was first applied to really bad paintings, like bright, velvet depictions of jungle beasts or Elvis Presley.

Props. A relatively recent addition to the English lexicon of slang. When you extend someone his or her proper due, you’re “giving props.”

Rectitude. Righteousness. The moral high ground taken as a matter of honor.

Oh, I did break down and check into the meaning of “schottish.” It’s a Bohemian country dance with two short runs, a hop, and four turning hop steps. Doesn’t sound like something the awkward, gangly Abe Lincoln himself would have executed well. Or me, either.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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