Joe McQuaid's Publisher's Notebook: We had 'score' wrong, but Abe got it right
The story, published in our Sunday News of Dec. 30, was a good read. It touched on some of the notable New Hampshire deaths of the year gone by, from two former U.S. senators (Rudman and Durkin) to a prize fighter, and a survivor of a World War II death camp.
But our headline intrigued me even more. It said, in part, "Among the dozens of people noted here, scores touched the lives of many Granite Staters."
It seemed a bit backwards. Wouldn't there be dozens among the scores? And just where were these scores (20 each) of people in a story that listed just 31 souls by my count?
I tracked down the headline writer and, on a hunch, said to him, "You don't know what a score is, do you?"
Quick as a whip, he denied the charge.
"It's eight," he said, with the supreme confidence one has when one just knows, really knows, of where he speaks, wrong though he might be.
"So let me get this straight," I replied. "When Abe Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg in 1863, and said it had been four score and seven years since we declared our independence from England, he thought it had been just 39 years?"
The headline writer, still not missing a beat, said, "That Abe Lincoln was pretty stupid, wasn't he?"
Yep, what a dope.
It would have been a lot easier on our headline writer, on millions of school kids, and probably on a lot of the audience at the time of his Gettysburg Address if old Abe had just said "87 years ago" instead of trying to score points with the intellectual set.
But Lincoln must have been one of those people who insisted on the whole nine yards grammatically and otherwise. Or was it six?
Also over New Year's another colleague at work sent me a link (I bet Lincoln didn't know the score about links) to a New York Times piece that delved into the origin of the "whole nine yards" phrase.
It came to no conclusions, however. It just said that the phrase (which generally means the whole thing) was older than a lot of people had thought and that in early 20th Century references, it was actually just the "whole six yards" rather than nine. Which means to me that inflation affects even our grammar.
So some day I expect the grandkids to read (if reading is still in fashion) that several scores ago, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Declaration of Independence, Missouri, for the whole 22 yards.
Write to Joe McQuaid at firstname.lastname@example.org.