Do Lincoln’s simple rhetorical finishes work like jokes?

by Mr. Sheehy

In the second chapter of Ward Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, called “The Saxon Finish,” Farnsworth examines Abraham Lincoln’s habit of beginning to express ideas with complex Latinate words and then finishing off his statement with shorter, Saxon expressions. Lincoln did this so much Farnsworth is able to share examples from his letters. This one is to James Conkling (1863):

But the proclamation, as law, either is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid it needs no retraction. If it is valid it cannot be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought to life.

Farnsworth describes Lincoln’s method this way:

The sound of Lincoln’s prose is made of many elements. This is just one of them, but it is important. Lincoln is well-known for his love of simple language, but he was also at home with Latinate words and mixed the two types to strong effect. He especially liked to circle with larger words early in a sentence and then finish it simply. The pattern allowed him to offer intellectual or idealistic substance and then tie it to a stake in the dirt. (16)

Farnsworth’s litany of examples proves his point, but I find myself thinking how second nature this must have been for Lincoln, who was famously fond of funny anecdotes and jokes. How many jokes and stories work precisely the way Farnsworth describes there? The storyteller circles with a set up, often purposely building a mood antithetical to what he’s about to launch, sometimes purposely distracting the listener, and then he swoops in for a quick zing to close it out.

There are other ways to tell stories, many of them much funnier than setting up zingers, as Mark Twain, that lover of the slurred point, observed. But while I have often read how Lincoln liked to tell stories and jokes, I have always wondered what those jokes and stories were like. I am guessing that Farnsworth’s analysis has actually tipped me off better than historians have been able to show me.