Lincoln in Congress


I’m not sure what the Nineteenth century phrase for “diss track” was, but:

“By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military hero? Yes sir; in the days of the Black Hawk war, I fought, bled, and came away. Speaking of Gen: Cass’ career, reminds me of my own. I was not at Stillman’s defeat, but I was about as near it, as Cass was to Hulls surrender, and, like him, I saw the place very soon afterwards. It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break; but I bent a musket pretty badly on one occasion. If Cass broke his sword, the idea is, he broke it in de[s]peration; I bent the musket by accident. If Gen: Cass went in advance of me in picking huckleberries [whortleberries], I guess I surpassed him in charges upon the wild onions.”

From earlier in the same speech:

“But the gentleman from Georgia further says we have deserted all our principles, and taken shelter under Gen: Taylor’s military coat-tail; and he seems to think this is exceedingly degrading. Well, as his faith is, so be it unto him. But can he remember no other military coat tail under which a certain other party have been sheltering for near a quarter of a century? Has he no acquaintance with the ample military coat tail of Gen: Jackson? Does he not know that his own party have run the five last Presidential races under that coat-tail? and that they are now running the sixth, under the same cover? Yes sir, that coat tail was used, not only for Gen: Jackson himself; but has been clung to, with the gripe of death, by every democratic candidate since. You have never ventured, and dare not now venture, from under it. Your campaign papers have constantly been ‘Old Hickories’ with rude likenesses of the old general upon them; hickory poles, and hickory brooms, your never-ending emblems; Mr. Polk himself was ‘Young Hickory”Little Hickory’ or something so; and even now, your campaign paper here, is proclaiming that Cass and Butler are of the true ‘Hickory stripe.’ No sir, you dare not give it up.

Like a horde of hungry ticks you have stuck to the tail of the Hermitage lion to the end of his life; and you are still sticking to it, and drawing a loathsome sustenance from it, after he is dead. A fellow once advertised that he had made a discovery by which he could make a new man out of an old one, and have enough of the stuff left to make a little yellow dog. Just such a discovery has Gen: Jackson’s popularity been to you. You not only twice made President of him out of it, but you have had enough of the stuff left, to make Presidents of several comparatively small men since; and it is your chief reliance now to make still another.

Mr. Speaker, old horses, and military coat-tails, or tails of any sort, are not figures of speech, such as I would be the first to introduce into discussions here; but as the gentleman from Georgia has thought fit to introduce them, he, and you, are welcome to all you have made, or can make, by them. If you have any more old horses, trot them out; any more tails, just cock them, and come at us.”

-Abraham Lincoln, Speech in U. S. House of Representatives on the Presidential Question, 27 July 1848

More From Lasch on Abbreviations


This one may be out of date, but the underlying point is still useful.

“Do not use the new postal abbreviations either in the running text or in footnotes. The old abbreviations—Mass., Miss.—are sanctified by custom. The new ones—MA, MS—are bureaucratic innovations designed to surround the postal service with an illusory air of efficiency. Accordingly they fall under the general prohibition of bureaucratic speech and writing, the invariable purpose of which is evasion and obfuscation, even when it appears, as here, to signal the streamlined, computerized elimination of waste motion.”

– Christopher Lasch, Plain Style: a Guide to Written English, 69 (2002)

Namesake Fallacy Day


“No True Scotsman,” in addition to being the name of this blog, refers to a particular logical fallacy. Discussed in greater detail here, here, here, and here, the fallacy consists of redefining a class in such a way as to confirm a thesis. So, for example:

Alfred: No Michigander puts ketchup on a coney.

Wayne: I’m from Ypsilanti, and I put ketchup on coneys.

Alfred: No true Michigander puts ketchup on a coney.

This is a technique used with some frequency by political activists (from a lot of different orientations). But it’s a circular argument, and should be pointed out and possibly ridiculed.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red & Blue Fishes


The word “fish” has a strange feature: while the word is singular and plural, there is an alternative plural, “fishes,” which is used to refer to more than one type of fish. So, “I own a fish,” “I own lots of fish,” and “I own fishes” can all be correct. Thus “all the fish in the sea” means each and every fish, while “all the fishes in the sea” means all the different types of fish.

English has a bunch of words where the singular and plural are the same (especially animal words, like “moose,” though I’ve never read a thorough explanation for that).Other examples are “cannon,” “species,” and “Euro”* (as in the currency; “bitcoin” is also used as a plural.)

One note about the Euro is that as I understand it, the intention was for “Euro” to be the plural, and that is the official position of the EU, but there is widespread use of “Euros” in languages where plurals are ordinarily formed by adding an “s.” There’s even a Wikipedia entry on this.

Proprietary Eponym


A “proprietary eponym” is a word that began as a brand name, but has come to mean the generic product (also called a “generic trademark,” apparently.)

Some of these are obvious and well-known, like rollerblade for in-line skate, kleenex for tissue, and xerox for photocopier, but I didn’t know until just know that heroin is also a proprietary eponym.

I’m also not sure just how embarrassed we should be that we need a word or phrase for this. At least a little, I would think.

“i.e.” and “e.g.”


These two cause more confusion than they should. I suspect that some of that confusion is because they are used to gussy up writing without a lot of thinking. Each is pretty straightforward, though:

“i.e.” stands for “id est.” It means “that is,” and means “in other words.” “put another way.” It is used for re-phrasing the previous sentence, or giving a small bit of explication.

“e.g.” stands for “exempli gratia.” It means “for example” and is used for giving, wait for it, examples of the thing just described.

That’s it. Another post with a short quiz at the end is here.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (2010), 5.220 includes a rule that you should always include a comma after either “i.e.” or “e.g.” Bryan Garner, in The Elements of Legal Style, 2d ed (2002), 113 takes the softer position that they should “generally” be set off by commas. I can’t say I have a strong view on this. Or think I’m likely to develop one. I think I’d be more likely to worry about whether they should be italicized. For someone who does care about this more than me, and even made a chart comparing various style guides, take a look at this. No seriously, go look at it.