On Scowering

“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.

* * * * *

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.”***

* * * * *

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.

18 thoughts on “On Scowering

  1. No. Making blacks a scape goat will not ensure freedom or liberty for white men. It will merely make white men who still have souls and consciences ashamed. And not proud of America. Or, rather, the 2 Americas. The Confederacy lost! Racists, get over it! Lincoln won! He paid his very life for our freedom from having to live where white men can have slaves. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master’. The Confederacy was evil. Never forget that!

      • Are you proud of the Confederacy or do you hate the Confederacy. Choose you this day which country you will serve: America, or a defeated Enemy. It is way past time people get over Racism and the Confederacy. No glory days of “My old Kentucky home”. It’s a part of history that was comfortable for white people, but Hell for Blacks. There is no Peace for White People until All People are Free. We Hope China Goes Democrat Some Day.

      • I oppose concentrated and centralized power, and so approve the political principle of the Confederacy and oppose the political principle of the Union. Decentralized power is subject to local evils, but the evil finds it difficult to spread and people can escape that evil by moving to another locality (e.g. take the underground railroad to Canada). Centralized power is not necessarily evil, but when it is evil, that evil is universal and inescapable. Consider abortion. If you oppose abortion, you should wish that we lived in a Confederacy and not a Union. If you support school prayer, you should likewise wish that this country was a Confederation of autonomous states, and not a Union ruled by a godless elite.

        I cannot be “proud” of the Confederacy since I was not part of it, and neither were my ancestors. I can, however, admire Confederates.

      • Harrington,

        I know better than to argue with an emotion-driven idiot, but I will say this in reply to your latest instantiation of historically illiterate idiocy: if you’re trying to convice me and people like me to violate God’s command to “honor your father and mother although they be poor,” you’re duly advised that you’re engaged in a fool’s errand. Now get thee behind me, Satan.

  2. Pingback: On Scowering | Reaction Times

  3. Here in Ireland, the word scour is also used by farmers to describe a calf with diarrhoea-surely derived from the second meaning of a ‘cloudburst’ or ‘sudden downpour of rain’.

    • Scour was widely used to describe animals and men suffering diarrhea into the 19th century. I think you are right that the sudden urgency of diarrhea is part of the meaning, but I also saw scour used to denote deliberate use of a purgative. So that indicates a scrubbing of the bowels. So this usage may combine both senses of scour, just as Lincoln’s did.

  4. 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…

    Well, one must consider the source (the ‘posterity’ to whom you allude), but as better men than me have long since observed, ‘there is nothing so absurd than when you repeat something often enough, people begin to believe it.’ The sentimental slop that is the Gettysburg Address, and posterity’s assessment of its self-contradictions as a ‘masterpiece of the orator’s art,’ is perfectly suited the godless swine who inhabit the Weimerican Republic.

    There’s lots and lots of sentimental slop out there, as you well know, and it comes to us in all manner of media and entertainment. Vanishing American complained a few days back at her blog of the new list of great American heroes President Trump revealed in a recent speech. She said she had never even heard of one of the names on the list, one Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. I informed her in a comment that, had she paid close attention to the sentimental slop contained in the movies Gods and Generals, and Gettysburg, she would most assuredly have known who Col. Chamberlain and his “Maine Men” were. If you watch the movie “Glory” (more sentimental slop) with a discerning eye, you’ll not fail to pick out numerous instances of sentimental nonsense such as in the scene where Col. Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) writes to his mother claiming that the black regiment under his command must have learned to entertain themselves in song and dance from long hours of “meaningless and inhuman labor.” The likes of at least one of your commenters would lap that drivel up as though it were self-evident, undeniable truth, never questioning its veracity.

    I presume we don’t need to discuss the sentimental slop that is “John Brown’s Body,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the “Black National Anthem,” a many a speech given by Yankee Contract Preachers during Reconstruction, etc, etc, etc.

    • I understand that wartime propaganda must fire up zeal to crush the enemy, but many Americans hold on to wartime propaganda after the war has ended, and then call it history. The national acceptance of Confederate war monuments from from around 1890 until around 2015 was a welcome exception to this habit of undying hatred. The South accepted the Reconstruction Amendments and the North (less graciously) accepted the Southern dead as Americans. I suppose this reconciliation involved a certain amount of sentimental slop, but it also ensured comity for more than 100 years.

      • Yes, of course. And as you’ve iterated before, it were best to have left that sleeping dog lie. Nevertheless here we find ourselves in, as others have noted, a fourth reconstruction phase. Unfortunately we don’t get to decide when all the fruits and crazies are let out to wreak their havoc on the world.

      • Thank you for reminding what sentimental slop the monuments themselves are, mostly all put up by the creepy udc, almost as a straw man to eventually get Ralph northam elected and ultimately “door number three” Biden. You do udc and I’ll do Lincoln.

  5. Concerning Chamberlain: in 7th grade, I read _The Killer Angels_, which is about Gettysburg and recounted from the points of view of a handful of officers, representing both sides. From my memory, Chamberlain was the main Union point of view, while Longstreet was the principal Confederate. I loved the book; it made all other war books that I had read as a young’un seem boring and sterile in comparison. I’ve never seen the movie _Gettysburg_, but it’s an adaptation of the book. Anyway, owing to the style of the novel, I felt like I came to know Chamberlain, and he therefore has been a historical “friend” in my inner world since adolescence. When I later encountered his observations about Lee’s surrender to Grant, I thought about how decent — how amazingly manly and civil — those men were. We are but shades in comparison. When I meet with certain sentiments shared above — or when I see the idiocy on display in the media, I find it utterly disgusting. These poor excuses for human beings are not worthy to lick horseshit from those officers’ boots — Northern or Southern. Revolting revolts they make with their slimy souls. They cannot even recognize the superior other as superior, so narcissistic are they! They have truly merited the smell of their camp.

    To Prof. Smith: I have never met a geographer in real life, at least as an adult. Back in the 7th grade (again), I was in the National Geography Bee, but something about the Pashtuns did me in. Anyway, I want to know whether most academics in your discipline are likewise etymologists — or is that one of your special qualities? It would make sense — seeing how your field provides fine material for the evolution of names and words, but is that interest common? Or was it common in a certain generation (19th century enthusiasm)?

    • I would guess that I am more interested in words than most geographers, but you are right to see a similarity in the history of language and the history of landscape. And, of course, the history of place names is central to all of this. I just like to know where things came from, and so am equally happy figuring out the origins of an old road or the origins of an old word or expression. But human geography has been completely taken over by technocrats and social justice warriors, and my interests have become highly eccentric.

      I share your admiration for the masculinity of so many of the men in the Civil War. Modern academics speak of masculinity with sneers, giggles or rolling eyes, which tells you all you need to know about our decadence.


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