By Joe Diorio
The January 20, 2021 Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. presented two opportunities to reflect on great writing: President Biden’s acceptance speech and the wonderful poem, “The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gorman.
What struck me as I listened to both President Biden and Gorman are the analogies and similarities to public speaking techniques utilized in Greek literature. Garry Wills, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, offers a series of comparative techniques used in Greek oratory that appear in the Gettysburg Address and which remain relevant to this day.
Wills writes about the Greek oratory with respect for its use in a speech commemorating a new cemetery. One of the comparisons he cites is light and dark. “The dead go into the dark; but the living need the splendor of the departed, as they do the sun.”
Gorman, in her opening line, uses a similar analogy when she says, “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
In his opening comments, President Biden also utilizes the light/dark idea as he says, “This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day.”
Wills discusses the contrast of choice and determination, and Gorman takes the handoff on that message, saying, “Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
Wills notes that words and deeds are a frequent participant in Greek oratory, explaining it is hard to fit words to the heroes’ great accomplishments. President Biden takes that topic to heart, saying “so now on this hallowed ground where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for two centuries.”
President Biden’s speech can be read here. Gorman’s poem can be read here.
Greeks and Bernie
The internet meme of Bernie Sanders – do I have to describe it? – took the internet by storm in the days after January 20. It would be far easier to list where a Bernie meme did not appear (I’m putting my money on Pope Francis’ Twitter feed, but I haven’t checked.) than where it did.
Linguist Gretchen McCulloch, in her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, explains that the term meme has Greek roots, outgrowing from the word mimeme, meaning “imitated thing.” So that’s another thing from January 20 we can connect to Greek culture. If you believe Gus Portokalos, the patriarch portrayed by Michael Constantine in the movie, “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” just about everything comes from Greek culture. But I haven’t checked that, either.
Bawling or Balling …
Great tweet from @jhollymc offered on Inauguration Day, when more than a few of us were perhaps feeling emotional over the moment. “Lots of people crying today, so here’s a reminder from the word police: If you are crying, you are ‘bawling your eyes out.’ If you are ‘balling your eyes out,’ that’s … well. Let’s stop there.”
OK, a puppy just died
Football fans and observers of politics spent a good deal of ink and air time discussing the fact that Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots football team, decided to decline the offer to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That was certainly news. But what caught my eye was this line from Belichick’s statement: “Above all, I’m an American citizen with great reverence for our nation’s values, freedom and democracy.”
Bill, Bill, Bill, it’s “… our nation’s values, freedom, and democracy” with a comma after “freedom” and before “and democracy.” Do not defer using the Oxford comma until the second half of the game. And as for “what’s up with the subhead, Joe?” I always maintain that every time you do not use the Oxford comma, a puppy dies. Thanks, Bill.
Nouns, not pronouns
Some members of the U.S. Congress recently griped about new rules requiring gender neutral writing. One wrote that the rules are “banning gendered pronouns,” words like “father, mother, son, and daughter” in favor of “parent, child” and so on.
I won’t call out the guilty party, but what immediately came to mind as I read about this is that the words mother, father, son, daughter, parent, and child are not pronouns, but nouns.
After I committed an error in this newsletter a reader quickly chided me saying, “Get your grammar right, then take your shot.” If it is true for me …
Let’s write carefully out there, people.
Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.