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Synonym Salad
October 8, 2002
by Tresa McBee

Adriana Burton's fifth-graders in Elkhart, Ind., didn't understand the song's words, so they rewrote them.

Thus, our national anthem got a rewrite. "Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight" became "Whose wide stripes and bright stars, thro' the dangerous fight." And "O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming" became "O'er the walls we watch'd, were so bravely streaming."

Nifty, huh? Oh, sure, some syllables are different, but the words mean the same thing. And who knows if the youngsters gathered at the school assembly last week, in front of whom Burton's class sang all four reworked verses, even detected the changes. Stretch "walls" and "bravely" enough while singing, and those missing syllables hardly cause a stumble.

Burton said her fifth-graders now intend to update the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence later this year. They are old documents. Now, it's a little tough with President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the most succinct 267 words ever written. How to update such eloquence? Well, we can try. After all, "fourscore and seven years ago" is rather awkward. Isn't "score" something done on the basketball court or with the lay-dees?

Speaking at Gettysburg, Pa., on Nov. 19, 1863, Lincoln is the one who gave us " ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." Perhaps this is easier: " ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not bite the dust."

And this line might confound, as in confuse: "But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground." What about "name" for "dedicate." "Consecrate" is a little tougher, because "extol," "exalt," "laud" and "venerate" seem rather old-fashioned. How about "honor" instead? Then thereÕs "hallow." Can't use "consecrate" 'cause weÕre trying to get rid of it. "Honor" is taken. Ah. "Respect." We use that a lot these days, as in self-respect, which every school child knows is the key to inner self-love. Or is that self-esteem?

No matter. Here's the update: "But in a larger sense, we cannot name, we cannot honor, we cannot respect this ground." Not quite the same ring, but, hey, Lincoln is essentially saying the same thing three times anyway. Nuances, schmuances.

Now, when you get to the Declaration of Independence (aka Indie Statement), you're talking about some seriously unused words and phrases. Who uses "unalienable" or "prudence" or writes "a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces ..."? It's downright convoluted, as in complicated.

When updating the document written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776, perhaps it's best to summarize that first 71-word sentence, which begins "when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another ..." Something super short should work, such as, "When folks donÕt get along and they break up, it's a good idea to explain why."

In fact, why not stick with this technique throughout? The document is just over 1,200 words, not including signatures, so surely there's room to condense, as in shorten. What more, really, in this day and age, is there to know other than "all genders are created equal" and their rights are their own, among them living free and going after happiness. And in the conclusion, suffice to say, "We're going our own way." You get the gist. Who can relate to George III's tyranny, as in control, these days anyway?

So, voila -- oh, sorry -- there you have it. Instead of using a dictionary and thesaurus merely to understand, why not just change the words altogether?

Oh, I admit to being uncomfortable. I know, I know. I'm a traditionalist. I think knowing words that mean the same thing, as in synonym, and using them as such depending on tone and meaning is fun. Of course, I have a mother who used to try to find a word whose definition her father didn't know. Greek was one of his majors, so she didn't succeed. Yeah, totally nerdy, but she passed her love of words on to me.

I realize not everyone is like this, which is copacetic, as in fine, with me. And certainly students should be encouraged to learn a word, not just pass it by.

But let's stick with how texts were first conceived, as in drafted. Or is it created? Devised? Planned? Pick one. But don't replace the original.

Tresa McBee is a columnist at the Northwest Arkansas Times. She can be reached at tresam@nwarktimes.com.

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