“That speech won’t scour! It was a flat failure, and the people are disappointed.”
Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863.
Abraham Lincoln muttered these words to his friend Ward Hill Lamon when he returned to his seat after delivering the famed Gettysburg Address. As Lamon explained, Lincoln often used the word “scour” to express “his positive conviction that a thing lacked merit, or would not stand the test of close criticism or the wear of time.”* When Lamon’s anecdote is retold, it is usually to point the irony of Lincoln doubting the success of a speech that posterity acclaims as a masterpiece of the orator’s art; but I believe Lincoln was in this case correct.
The Gettysburg Address is a cup of sentimental slop tossed onto the bones of eight thousand American men and boys.
There is, in fact, a fatal contradiction at the heart of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and this is why “any nation so conceived, and so dedicated” cannot “long endure.” Either liberty will come to mean freedom from the shame of inequality, or equality will come to mean equally free to strive for superiority. For equality to prevail, the nation must become a tyranny; if liberty prevails, it must become an anarchy. And before it reaches one or the other of these end stages, a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality must pass through a thousand unpleasant combinations of partial tyranny and partial anarchy.
Sentimental slop, and dangerous too. A nation that does not wish to “vanish from the earth” must, in fact, adapt itself to the reality that all men are not created equal, and that unchecked liberty is the bane of social life.
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But this is not a political post. My interest is in that word scour, which Lincoln had the wit to realize his Gettysburg Address would not do. It does not stand up to close or searching criticism, and the essential weakness of its doctrine has been exposed by the wear of time.
Scour has in our language two distinct meanings that are traced to two ancient roots. In one sense, scour means to scrub, as when a careless cook is obliged to scour charred stew from the bottom of an overheated pot. This sense of cleaning by vigorous abrasion comes from the Middle English schuren, and we see the act so named in an early translation of Don Quixote. When the errant knight decides to set off on his adventure,
“The first thing he did was to scowr a suit of armor that had belonged to his great grandfather, and had lain time out of mind rusting in a corner.”
In another sense, scour means to search, as when an ambitious socialite scours the newspaper to see if it has published a notice of her daughter’s wedding. This sense of searching comes from the Old English scur, which meant a cloudburst or sudden downpour of rain. From this we have the words shower and scowre, the second meaning to dash away suddenly. For instance, a seventeenth-century dictionary of criminal slang makes this translation:
“Let us scowre, or we shall be boned: let us run away or we shall be taken.”**
We find this sense of scour in the old translation of Don Quixote that I quoted above. The man from La Mancha charges at two monks who are riding on mules, causing one of the monks to fall to the ground. Whereupon the second monk,
“observing the discourteous usage of his companion, clapt his heels to his over-grown mule’s flanks and scowrd over the plain, as if he had been running a race with the wind.”
The word that denoted scampering away easily evolved into a word that meant to dash away in search of something or someone. Both actions are characterized by suddenness and alacrity. And the word that denoted to dash away in search of something or someone easily evolved into a word that means to be engaged in searching for something or someone. Here, for instance, is a Texas newspaper from the 1830s using scour as a synonym of range.
“To secure the inhabitants residing on the frontiers, from the invasions of the hostile Indians, the General Council has made arrangements for raising three companies of rangers; one . . . to scour the country between the Colorado and Brazos; one . . . to range between the Brazos and Trinity . . . . The other . . . for the purpose of scouring the country east of the Trinity.”***
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This is not leading anywhere, but I find it interesting that Lincoln used of the word scour in a way that combines both of these senses. When Lamon said that Lincoln feared that the Gettysburg Address would not stand up to “close criticism,” we can easily see that he means searching criticism, and thus connect Lincoln’s scour with scowre and scur. When he says that Lincoln feared it would not stand up to the “wear of time,” he obviously connects scour with the abrasive cleaning that was once known as schuren.
*) Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln (1895), p. 171
**) B. E. Gent. A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew in its Several Tribes of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, etc. (1699)
***) Telegraph and Texas Register (Oct. 26, 1835), p. 3.