We are judged each day by our speech. Our words reveal our refinements; they tell the discerning listener of the company we have kept; they are the hallmarks of education and culture.
Dale Carnegie said that we have only four contacts with the world: We are evaluated and classified by what do, by how we look, by what we say, and by how we say it. Yet many people blunder through a long lifetime, after leaving school, without any conscious effort to enrich their stock of words, to master their shades of meaning, to speak with precision and distinction. Instead, they come to habitually use the overworked and exhausted phrases of the office and street. Is it any wonder that their talk lacks distinction and individuality?
Abraham Lincoln’s father was an illiterate carpenter and his mother was a woman of no extraordinary attainments. Yet Lincoln had an extraordinary gift for words. No other American ever wove words into such comely patterns, or, in the words of Dale Carnegie, “produced with prose such matchless music.”
Lincoln—who had attended school less than twelve months in his entire life—owed his prolific mastery of the language to his love of books. He did not squander all his time with his mental equals and inferiors. Instead, he made companions out of the elite minds, the singers, and the poets of the ages. He could repeat from memory whole pages of Burns and Byron and Browning.
This awkward, pioneer, who at one time shucked corn and butchered hogs for 31 cents a day on the Pigeon Creek farms of Indiana, delivered, at Gettysburg, one of the most beautiful addresses ever spoken by mortal man. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was so moving and poignant that Charles Sumner said, shortly after Lincoln’s death, that Lincoln’s address would live when the memory of the battle was lost, and that the battle would one day be remembered largely because of the speech. Can anyone doubt the correctness of this prophecy?
Do a search for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address online, and read it slowly, letting the words sink in. Let them move you as they did a nation 150 years ago, and let his words and his dedication to the language motivate you to reassess the language you use in your everyday life.
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