Archive for the ‘Words’ Category

“We the People” say “Thank you, Gouverneur”

September 25, 2012

Those mighty opening words!

September 17, 2012 came and went without fanfare. That’s unfortunate. It was the 225th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.  Constitution Day is one of the least-acknowledged events on America’s calendar, and it just shouldn’t be that way.

Don’t take it from me. Let George Washington remind you of how significant the completion and ratification of the Constitution was.  As president, he issued a proclamation – to accompany a resolution of Congress – declaring November 26, 1789 as the first Thanksgiving Day. It was to give “thanks” for the new Constitution.

We should be thankful for it as well, and September 17 of each year should be an occasion of thoughtful and appreciative reminiscence, if not a national holiday.  I’d like to take this occasion to belatedly raise a glass in salute to one of the most unsung heroes of early America, and the most important influence on the final form of United States Constitution, the remarkable Gouverneur Morris.

Our Constitution has a total of 4,440 words. It is the oldest, and the shortest, written Constitution of any major government in the world.  Every word of the Constitution counts, especially “We the People,” the mighty and telling first three words of the Preamble. Those were the words of Morris, the wealthy, womanizing aristocrat from New York. He did much, as one of the Founding Fathers, to help bring forth the new nation.  Those three words were his greatest gift to us all.

Gouverneur Morris: “Penman of the Constitution”

Gouverneur Morris actually disdained democracy.  That word, in fact, does not appear in the Constitution. When Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts remarked, at the Constitutional Convention, that “The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy,” Morris agreed. He thought that only landowners should be allowed to vote; a broad voting franchise would entrench the rich in power, in his view.

The people never act from reason alone,” he said, in one of his 173 speeches – more than anyone else – at the Convention. “The rich will take advantage of their passions and make these the instrument for oppressing them.  Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich, who will be able to buy them.”

So how did that man fashion the enduring document that has secured the rights of all individuals for the past 225 years?  He was on the right side of all the issues that truly mattered. He was an ardent nationalist; he believed that the only hope for survival of the new country was for it to be bound together as one nation, not a confederation of sovereign states. He also hated slavery, and he was a passionate believer in freedom of religion even though he was no churchgoer himself.

As one who writes and edits for a living, I am a big fan of Morris.  My earlier blog post, which you can read by clicking here, recaps his life and career. There’s no need to repeat it.  But since I did that post, I have read Richard Brookheiser’s biography, “Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution.” The book describes how Morris’s skills as a writer and editor brought the Constitution into being.

William Samuel Johnson, Chairman of the “Committee of Stile.” He delegated the committee’s responsibilities well.

Morris was the star performer on the “Committee of Stile,” a group of five men selected by a Committee of Detail to “frame” all of the resolutions that the entire convention had approved.  The chairman of the committee was Dr. William Samuel Johnson, a 60-year old lawyer from Connecticut. The others were Rufus King, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.  Only one could do the writing, though, and they delegated it to Morris.

He completed his redraft in four days. Morris compressed the first draft’s 23 articles into seven.  He followed faithfully all of the resolutions, but his editing eliminated superfluous wording and added clarity and simplicity. Here is just one example, from Article 1, Section 10, in which he reduces the word count from 61 words to 36.

The early draft reads:

“No State, without the consent of the Legislature of the United States, shall…keep troops or ships of war in times of peace…nor engage in any war, unless it shall be actually invaded by enemies, or the danger of invasion be so imminent, so as not to admit of a delay, until the Legislature of the United States shall be consulted.”

Morris’s tightened version reads:

“No State shall, without the consent of Congress…keep Troops or Ships of War in times of peace…or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as to not admit of Delay.”

So it was throughout the redrafting. Though he was a lawyer, Morris avoided the excess verbiage that lawyers seem to love.  His rewording was invariably concise, direct, and clear.

But the Preamble was the one place where he did not have to follow any resolutions. Instead, he wrote it from scratch. Rather, he rewrote it from scratch, and in so doing he made clear for all time that the powers of the government derive ultimately from the people. He also pointed out the purpose of the government that was being formed, which the Committee of Detail had neglected to do.

The Committee of Detail’s version of the preamble went, “We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts…” and so on through Georgia “do ordain, declare, and establish this Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity.”

This wasn’t good enough for Morris. It was, first of all, a roll call of states. It also neglected to say what the ends of the government were, or why it existed in the first place. And you know how he fixed it.

Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts delegate who refused to sign the Constitution.

“We the People of the United States…” begins his preamble. It’s not the 13 states that are the source of legitimacy and power of the government. It’s the people of the entire nation.  This was Gouverneur Morris’s statement of nationalism, and his lasting bequest to us.

Not everybody agreed with the wording. Patrick Henry refused to attend the convention, and wrote “That poor little thing, we the people, instead of the states.”

Just as importantly, Morris wrote why “We the People” are doing it. Earlier drafts and suggestions had had vague and off-point purposes such as “the exigencies of government” and “the common benefit of the States.”  Morris swept them all away with: “In order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The style is poetic even while it remains spare. The subtle rhymes of “insure/secure” and “tranquility/liberty/posterity” along with the alliteration “provide/promote” give the Preamble an appealing and memorable ring.  “We the People” are establishing this government, and here’s why.

The government that Morris and his fellow conventioneers built and secured with that Constitution has endured for more than two centuries.  It will continue as long as “We the People” elect representatives who carry out the mission of the government as stated in the Preamble, who act in the interests of the entire nation. There is no guarantee that we will do that.  Our record over the past several decades is mixed at best.

Most of the framers knew that their finished work was not perfect. After the Convention’s final meeting, the 81-year old Benjamin Franklin, oldest of the signers, was asked by the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia what kind of a government had been formed. His reply was, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

In 1803, Gouverneur Morris wrote to a friend, “In adopting a republican form of government, I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better for worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all of its bad qualities.

For doing so, and for writing the immortal words that established our sovereign role in this great and lasting enterprise, “We the People” say “Thank you, Gouverneur.”


March 18, 2012


People who like Robert Frost’s poetry have read about it. Our friends up North in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, are living through it.

This is Mud Time. That’s what we call it here. But in over in Russia, it’s Rasputitsa.

That’s the time of year, in both spring and fall, when heavy snow or rain make the unpaved roads of that vast country impassable.  Rasputitsa did much to defend Russia from invading hordes led by Napoleon and Hitler, sucking horses’ hooves, wagon wheels, truck tires, and tank treads into gooey mire.  People of Russia – at least those who’ve been allowed to learn their country’s true history – must have an appreciation for Rasputitsa, even as they hunker down and eat borscht until their roads dry up.

If you think ”Rasputitsa”  sounds like the surname of that shadowy figure Gregory Rasputin, you’re right.  But the word itself probably came from the Russian root “put,” which means “road” or “way.”  A “rasputye” is a place where roads converge. “Rasputitsa” came to mean “muddy road season.”

Some people mistakenly believe that Rasputin’s surname means “licentious.” That’s not true, though the guy who is popularly called “the mad monk” was almost certainly that, in his dealings with women of the Court and elsewhere in St. Petersburg.  A similar Russian word, “rasputny” does carry that meaning, and its noun form, “rasputnik,” describes a man who might be described nowadays as a lecher.

Nicholas II

Rasputin is a common name in Russia. But as for the man himself – he was a mysterious character who held mesmeric sway over Alexis, the hemophiliac son and only male heir of the hapless Czar Nicholas II.

Rasputin arrived in St Petersburg from Siberia around 1905. An itinerant preacher, he had a reputation of being able to heal people through prayer. Doctors of the Imperial Court had been unable to help the lad, who was great grandson of Queen Victoria. Rasputin was able to make Alexis feel better, every time the boy hurt himself or began to bleed. It was probably through some form of hypnosis. He may also have used leeches, and he said to stop using aspirin – a good move because aspirin is an anticoagulant that made matters worse.

The Czar called Rasputin as “our friend” and a “holy man.” The trust that built up for him gave the guy a lot of personal and political influence at the court. Local nobility and the Orthodox Church leaders couldn’t stand him, of course, but had a hard time of it because he became an official of the Czar’s administration.  He was accused of many things – unbridled sexual predation, undue influence over the royal family among them.  These allegations were largely accurate.

Czarina Alexandra, of German-Protestant descent, thought God spoke to her through Rasputin.  Rasputin spoke of salvation as depending less on the clergy and the church than on seeking the spirit of God within. He also claimed that yielding to temptation – which for him meant sex and alcohol – was needed to proceed to repentance and salvation.

During the years of World War I, Rasputin’s drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and willingness to accept bribes and having his critics dismissed from their posts showed what kinds of guy he was.  He became the focus of accusations of unpatriotic influence at court. The unpopular Czarina was accused of spying for Germany.  Rasputin was against the war effort; he claimed that he had a revelation that the Russian armies would not be successful until the Czar personally took command.  The bumbling Nicholas did so, with dire consequences.


While Nicholas was away at the front, Rasputin’s influence over Czarina Alexandra increased. He persuaded her to fill governmental offices with his own handpicked candidates. He also cohabited with upper-class women in exchange for granting political favors.  At that same time, Russia’s economy was declining rapidly. Many people blamed Alexandra and Rasputin. A group of conspirators finally murdered him in December 1916 after several attempts – he had been poisoned, shot, beaten, and finally drowned in an icy river.

You know the rest of the sorry history. Russia withdrew from the war, the Bolsheviks seized power, the Czar abdicated and was eventually murdered in the cellar of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. There followed nearly a century – and counting – of profound evil, mass murder, plunder, pillage and assorted human tragedy wrought by Lenin, Stalin and so many of their successors.

Gregory Rasputin is a bit player on history’s grand stage. But was he really? Nicholas, the wrong man to come to power at an especially wrong time, probably would have screwed things up anyway.  Still, I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different had the imperial court’s doctors been successful in treating the poor little Czarevitch, and if Gregory Rasputin remained out on the steppes, just conning peasants out of their money and their honor. Rasputin may well have influenced the history of the world much more than he deserved to. We’ll never know.

If this story and era are of interest to you, I recommend Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie. The author also had a hemophiliac son, and he decided to research the story of Russia’s last imperial family. It is a good read.

So next time your car is bogged down in the mud of a northern New England spring, remember that it’s just Rasputitsa.  You’ve got it bad for the moment, but it could be worse. Warm days will come, the roads will dry, and you’ll be on your way to the gorgeous scenic vistas of the Green Mountain and Granite States. They’re worth the effort.

And one final editorial comment. The Ipatiev House, a grand edifice in a backwater town in the Urals, remained standing until 1977 when bozo Russky premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered it destroyed, lest it become a revered place and shrine to the Romanovs.  Like most bad guys throughout history, Brezhnev was a craven coward.  He would have fled from a fistfight with Granny Clampett. But what he most feared was the light of truth.

No matter how painful the truth may be – truth from history or in the present day – we must never fear it.  And we must never cease our search for it.

Truth will set us free. It still has not yet set the people of Russia free. But it may yet – and let us hope it does.

Blondes, Brunettes, and Redheads: The Story Behind the Words for Hair Color

February 23, 2012

(This is taken almost verbatim from the e-newsletter “Daily Writing Tips.”  It covers some of my favorite subjects – particularly etymology, of course!)

The conventions for referring to hair color are tousled. Why is it that we refer to someone with light-colored hair as a blonde (and, rarely, a blond) but we call someone with red hair a redhead? Why are blonde and brunette spelled two ways?


Blond and its feminine form blonde, both from the Latin word blundus (“yellow”) by way of French, may have in turn come from a Frankish word that could be related to Old English blondan, “to mix,” which shares its origins with blend. Blond is usually employed as an adjective, the term as a noun for a man with blond hair, by contrast, is rare. Because blonds and blondes are more likely to be fair-skinned as well as fair-haired, the term is also associated with light complexion.

The presence of both masculine and feminine forms for blond/blonde and brunet/brunette is due to their French (and ultimately Latin) roots, as it were, as opposed to the Germanic origins of black and red, the words for the other major hair colors, which have a neutral form.

Normally, English might have jettisoned one gendered form for blond/blonde. However, the venerable theme in popular culture of the blonde-haired woman as more sexually attractive and available (as well as flighty, shallow, and dimwitted), as compared to females with hair of another color, has caused the noun form blonde and brunette to endure.

The numerous terms for variations in blond hair, not necessarily in order of darkness, include sandy, strawberry, and dirty. Towhead (the first syllable refers to its resemblance to tow, flax or hemp fibers used for twine or yarn) describes a person with yellowish and often unruly hair.


Brunet and brunette, from the gender-specific diminutives of the French brun (“brown”), mean “brown haired.” (Brun and its diminutives originally also referred to a dark complexion.) As with blond and blonde, the male form is rarely used on its own as a noun, though the masculine and feminine variations persist probably because of the same double standard in association of hair color with female sexuality and with personality characteristics as mentioned in reference to blondes above. (Dark-haired women are stereotyped as serious, sophisticated, and capable.) Words for shades of brown hair, from darkest to lightest, are brunet/brunette, chestnut, walnut (the last two as compared to colors of the respective nuts), golden, and ash.


  Redhead is yet another term for hair color used as a noun; in contrast to the colors mentioned above, it is not gender specific, though as blonde and brunette  are much more common in usage than blond and brunet, it is more likely to refer to a woman than a man.

Variations in red hair, listed in alphabetical order rather than according to depth of color, include auburn, copper, ginger, and orange. (Auburn derives ultimately from the Latin word albus, meaning “white,” but thanks to the influence of brun, the French spelling — auborne — changed, as did the meaning, to “reddish brown.”) The prevailing — and long-standing — cultural stereotype about redheads is that they are hot tempered; the hair color has also been associated with a high libido.

Alone among descriptions of people with general hair tones, a black-haired person is never referred to by the word black alone.

Hair-color categories are arbitrary — strawberry blond is sometimes considered a type of red hair, and auburn might be classified as a type of brown hair — though a system called the Fischer-Saller scale, devised for anthropological and medical classification, assigns alphabetical letters and roman numerals to various grades of hair color.

So: Is it true blondes have more fun?

What’s in a Name?

December 9, 2011

Callista, Calista. A politician’s wife and a well-known actress/main squeeze of well-known actor both sport that lovely name. It’s from the superlative of the Greek word “kalos,” meaning “good” or “beautiful.” So someone with that name is, to her parents and her beau, anyway, the “most beautiful.”

“Callista” was the word that started the Trojan War. Eris, the goddess of strife, was angry that she was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Everybody else from Olympus was there. Eris inscribed “Callistae” – the dative form of the word, which meant “to the fairest” – onto a golden apple and rolled it into the banquet hall.

Orlando Bloom as Paris with Diane Kruger as Helen

Naturally, all of the big three celebrity goddesses claimed the apple.  Zeus – this must be why he got to be Zeus, the most high – didn’t get sucked into making the decision. Zeus told Hermes to bring the ladies to Prince Paris of Troy, who was known for his taste in women.  The Judgment of Paris would settle the impossible issue. Aphrodite, goddess of love; Hera, wife of Zeus; and Athena, goddess of wisdom, played the bachelorettes.

It was no evening gown or swimsuit competition that they held, up there on Mount Ida. The girls did their K-Street best to sway him. Athena promised Paris strength and knowledge. Hera promised wealth and power.  Aphrodite promised that he’d marry the world’s most beautiful woman. Guess who won the golden “to the fairest” apple?

Problem was, that most beautiful woman, Helen, was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta.  Away she went, spirited off to become Helen of Troy. She was the one with “the face that launched a thousand ships;” they sailed off to get her back for her hubby.  It was the original quagmire, taking ten years, but back she came to Sparta.

Callista, Calista. And now you know the rest of the story.

An Act of Pure Evil

September 6, 2011

In writing my blog and posting on Facebook I have tried to avoid the political realm. This time I would like to make an exception.

The Bret Stephens column in the Wall Street Journal of September 6, 2011 struck a chord with me. I think that his central point is worth repeating here, and pondering as we look back on September 11, 2001. That day has its own sobering meaning for me; I flew out of Boston early that morning to attend a trade show in Atlanta.  I began the day one airline terminal distant from the mass murderers.

Stephens takes issue with the way that we – or most of us in America, anyway – have come to remember and refer to September 11, 2001. As someone who works every day to use our wondrous English language as effectively as possible, I agree with him when he writes, “An act of evil has been reduced, in our debased parlance, to a ‘tragedy.’”

He also rightly points out that while 9/11 was a day of monumental loss, it was also a day of extraordinary love and giving. He cites the first responders, the heroic and courageous “Let’s roll” passengers of Flight 93, the volunteers, emergency crews, and those inside the buildings who helped others and managed to save individual lives.

Earlier, on my Facebook page, I posted a link to ESPN’s beautiful story of the man in the red bandanna, Welles Crowther, Boston College lacrosse player. He is credited with saving at least a dozen people that day. If you have not yet seen it, find it on YouTube.

Stephens says that our remembrance of September 11 should largely be to reflect on, and be thankful for, those selfless people. Agree. If we all strive to emulate them, in ways large and small, our world will be a better place.

He goes on to remind us of a deeper danger here, and I believe he’s correct.

He compares the September 11 attack to the one on Pearl Harbor. In 1941, a comparable number of Americans lost their lives. While the nation mourned, it also responded. The day became a “bookend” in a war that was fought with a clear purpose and righteous resolve.  But 9/11 is an event that has no corresponding bookend; we don’t know whether we’re early, late, or somewhere in between in a similar book. In short, 9/11 has become an event unto itself, somehow disconnected from everything that still flows around it.

This way of looking at 9/11/2001has brought about our coming to refer to “the tragic events of 9/11” rather than calling that day what it was, a monstrous act of evil and of war.  Quoting Stephens’ final paragraphs:

“There is something dangerous about this. Dangerous because we risk losing sight of what brought 9/11 about. Dangerous because nations should not send men to war in far-flung places to avenge an outrage and then decide, mid-course, that the outrage and the war are two separate things. Dangerous above all because nations define themselves through the meanings they attach to memories, and 9/11 remains, 10 years on, a memory without a settled meaning.

None of that was true in 1951. We had gone to war to avenge Pearl Harbor. We had won the war. We had been magnanimous in victory. The principal memorial that generation built was formed of the enemies they defeated, the people they saved, the world they built and the men and women they became. Our task on this 9/11 is to strive to do likewise.”

Once again, I agree. American greatness does not reside in its presidents, congress people, actors, CEOs, or athletes.  On September 11, 2001, we saw once again that such greatness lies in ordinary people like you and me who, in times of dire need or extreme peril, performed supererogational acts for their fellow human beings.

My favorite John F. Kennedy quote says that countries define themselves not by the men they produce, but by the men they honor, the men they remember.

Let us resolve to do more than remember, this September 11 and on every one to follow. Let us strive to live our lives as the kind of Americans whom the heroes of September 11, 2001 died to save. If we do, we can still build a world that is another principal, fitting memorial to them.