Monday, October 24, 2011

Of humdingers and sockdolagers

I wonder if Abraham Lincoln died confused.

The thought occurred to me this weekend as I was reading aloud what happened in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, just moments before J.W. Booth’s bullet hit bone.

I’m probably the only father on earth who can call his 11-year-old daughter a “sockdologizing old man-trap” and know she’ll understand what sounds to modern ears like nonsense.

Those were the last words to ever enter the conscious ears of the great Lincoln.

And I can’t believe that trivia’s evaded me until now. I don’t remember reading the words in all the Civil War/Lincoln assassination books I’ve read over the years until I read Jay Winik’s outstanding book, “April 1865: The Month That Saved America.”

Or maybe I dismissed them as gibberish after failing to find “sockdologizing” in any of my dictionaries.

Either way, two things have happened in the meantime: One, I have subscriber access to the world’s humdinger dictionary: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) which, by the way, defines “humdinger” as a remarkable or outstanding person or thing.

The dictionary defines more than 600,000 words, many of them long since dropped from common usage. By comparison, my sturdy and still useful American Heritage Dictionary includes 155,000 entries, and studies show the average American uses and understands about 10,000 words.

So if I want to know what the heck “sockdologizing” means I know exactly where to look.

But what would cause me to do so?

That’s where my sockdologizing daughter comes in.

She’s nuts about the Lincoln assassination. It is one of two historical topics that rivet her young imagination.

The other is Titanic. And in her mind she can’t think about one without the other since I told her both happened on the exact same day. Lincoln was shot on April 14 and died the next day; Titanic struck the iceberg on April 14, -- anniversary alert! -- 1912, and she sunk the following day.

So last night we’re poring over the details of Lincoln’s final moments when I discover another historical coincidence: the third last word Lincoln ever heard was exactly what doomed the unsinkable ship.

Titanic was sunk by a sockdolager!

The OED says “sockdolager” is a heavy or knock-down blow.

The word was a key line in the play “Our American Cousin,” which the Lincolns chose to attend so they could decompress following the Confederacy’s announced surrender.

And you have to wonder how history would be different if they’d have opted to just stay in and order a pizza.

Was Lincoln aware of the word’s meaning? How many participants in the high-brow Sunday talk shows would know how to respond if someone tossed sockdolager into the conversation?

The scoundrel Booth deliberately timed pulling the trigger to the sockdologizing line hoping the laugh getter, one of the night’s biggest, would muffle the blast.

We all know what happened after that. Lincoln died, Booth escaped only to be shot by Boston Corbett, America’s greatest eunuch.

But what happened to sockdologizing?

OED differs from other dictionaries in that it sleuths out word birthdays, the exact year when a word’s usage becomes widespread enough to earn inclusion.

For sockdolager, the year was 1830.

The last year its usage was cited -- and this is key -- was 1892.

How did this historically significant word drop so swiftly out of sight?

You’d think SportsCenter would find sensible reasons to use it at least once a show, sporting events being full of momentous sockdologizers.

Yet in a day when literacy was rare and news dissemination limited, this fancifully formed word -- much like flabbergast or ballyhoo -- stood up, marched straight into history and faded as quickly as the echo of a gunshot.

This should not stand. The anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination is fewer than four years away.

We need to muster a movement to increase sockdolager usage so the in-the-know crowd -- readers of this blog -- will nod sagely whenever we hear sockdolager and then get that little smarty-pants jolt of satisfaction when we inform listeners about sockdolager’s historic significance.

Oh, I can tell Josie’s going to be obnoxious about this.

I wonder where she gets that.

Alas, I tried to think of a really great sockdolager with which to conclude this post. I could not.

So the story that mentions 16 sockdolagers, probably more than in any other story written in the past 150 years, ends without one.

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