Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

One of the best known of American poems begins:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won.

In this poem by Walt Whitman, the captain is Abraham Lincoln.

As a young man, Lincoln read and re-read the King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and Robert Burns. By the time he became president he had developed a distinguished prose style of his own — simple, clear, precise, forceful, rhythmic, poetic and, at times, majestic.

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson all possessed unusual literary skills, but, at his best, Lincoln towered above them all. The critic Jacques Barzun called him a “literary genius.”

In the brief compass of 272 words, President Lincoln transformed a gruesome battle into the raison d’être of a truly United States that for the first time in its history became a union. Before Lincoln, people used “the United States” as a plural: “The United States are . . . Ever after it would be “The United States is . . .”

Nonetheless, about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Chicago Times review had this to say: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterances of the man who has been pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

That same day at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863, Edward Everett, famed for his oratory, spoke for close to two hours, while Lincoln took only a couple of minutes. Afterwards, Everett took Lincoln aside and said, “My speech will soon be forgotten; yours never will. How gladly would I exchange my hundred pages for your twenty lines!”

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of such American classics as The Scarlet Letter, died on a canoe trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, accompanied by Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne had been President Pierce’s classmate at Bowdoin College, along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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      Author of 47 books, Theodore Roosevelt was without doubt one of our most ebullient presidents. The wildly popular British adventure writer Rudyard Kipling spent some time with the president and reported: “I curled up in the seat opposite, and listened and wondered, until the universe seemed to be spinning around, and Theodore was the spinner.”

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Being from the Midwest, Harry Truman often talked to farm groups. Whenever he held forth about fertilizer, Truman used the word manure, much to the embarrassment of his support staff. Finally, the public relations people went to Bess Truman to ask her help in getting her husband to stop using the offending word. She sighed, “You’d be amazed how long it took me to get him to start using manure.

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During the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, James Michener, author of Hawaii, The Source and other mega-sellers, was invited to a celebrity dinner at the White House. Michener declined to attend and explained: “Dear Mr. President: I received your invitation three days after I had agreed to speak a few words at a dinner honoring the wonderful high school teacher who taught me how to write. I know you will not miss me at your dinner, but she might at hers.”

Michener received a handwritten reply from the understanding Ike: “In his lifetime a man lives under 15 or 16 presidents, but a really fine teacher comes into his life but rarely. Go and speak at your teacher’s dinner.”

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On Saturday, March 7, starting at 1 pm, I’ll be performing “The Joy of Names” at the La Mesa Branch Library, 8074 Allison Avenue. Free and worth every penny. I’d love to meet you there.

Two days later, on Monday, March 9, starting at 7:30 pm, I’ll be performing “Presidents Tonight!” at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. My show will feature fascinating facts about our American presidents. For information, please call 858 481 1055. All ticket sales will benefit NCRT.