Having just watched Ken Burns‘ Civil War series again, I was struck by the beauty of the letters, journals, and speeches of the day. The elegance of the language made me wonder about the longevity of the texts and tweets of today. What will they say about our generation? Where has all the beauty gone?
This reoccurring thought was triggered again yesterday as I was reading a review by Joshua Kendall in the April 14 Wall Street Journal. Kendall reviewed The Forgotten Founding Father. Noah Webster of dictionary fame has just been remembered.
Kendall quotes one entry to give readers a notion of the breadth and depth of Webster’s skills. The definition he chose to quote was mercy.
“That benevolence, mildness or tenderness of heart which disposes a person to overlook injuries, or to teat an offender better than he deserves; the disposition that tempers justice, and induces an injured person to forgive trespass and injuries, and to forbear punishment, or inflict less than law or justice will warrant. In this sense, there is perhaps no word in our language precisely synonymous with mercy. That which comes nearest to it is grace. It implies benevolence, tenderness, mildness, pity or compassion, and clemency, but exercised only towards offenders. Mercy is a distinguishing attribute of the Supreme Being.”
How beautiful is that! And now it’s your turn.
- Define a word of your choosing. Style-wise, imitate Webster.
- If you are stymied, try to define words in current use: compromise, xenophobic, posturing or…
- Rifle through the pages of a dictionary and choose a work that catches your fancy.
- fancy is a great word. Define fancy.
I am flying to Peru and pleased to note that on this United flight to Miami I am on an Airbus 320 and not a Boeing 737. I am not keen on the inner skin of the cabin giving way and my flying through the ceiling and into the Great Beyond.
My hands are poised above a new notebook – purchased yesterday. While I waited for the Geeks to install more memory, I strolled around Circuit City where I paused to try out the newest Amazon kindle. I scrolled through the books on offer and stopped at The Oxford American Dictionary. I wanted to take a look at their definitions, so I typed d-e-a-t-h. (I always get a bit anxious before I fly.)
And instantly any number of deaths popped up on the screen. Scrolling down, I chose to look at death adder. (I seem to be fixated on snakes.) Much to my relief, the Death Adder lives in Australia. It is a trickster in that it “has a thin, wormlike tail which it uses to lure birds and other prey.” What a clever snake!
Arriving in Miami, I noticed that words and phrases describing the Everglades were embedded in the floor. Before being labelled “Everglades” on the Turner map of 1823, they were the Pa-hay-okee, an Indian word for “grassy water.”
As I walked to the boarding gate, the definition of the Everglades unwound like a spool of thread. The breadth of the text varied in width – sometimes just a word or three; other times words spanned the entire walkway. The text was beautiful, but I was unable to find the name of the author. A sad state of affairs.
The purpose of the text was to alert passengers to an ecosystem at-risk. But the inscription was so much more. I include a bit of the text: Early on the Everglades was described as a series of vast miasmic swamps, poisonous lagoons, huge dismal marshes, abetting a shallow inland sea or labyrinths of dark trees hung and looped about with snakes and dripping mosses malignant with tropical fevers and malarias, evil to the white man.
I have searched the Internet in vain looking for the name of the author who penned the text inscribed on the floor of the Miami airport floor. If any of you know the author, I would like knowing what you know.
Glaed or glyde or glade or glide… you choose.
And in closing, I flew LAN Peruvian Airlines from Miami to Lima. What a great flight! Check this out – On Peruvian flights, they trust the passengers with real metal utensils! How civilized!