Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Did Abraham Lincoln say “That’s cool!”

He did. On the evening of February 27, 1860, Lincoln gave a famous speech at Cooper Union. This was a political speech made before New York City powerbrokers. The purpose was to help secure his nomination to run for president. Here's a snippet.

“We hear that you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that event, you say you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you and then you will be a murderer!”

I used this speech in a prologue for The Shut Mouth Society. Many readers have questioned whether Lincoln actually used modern slang. Luckily, there’s documentation aplenty.

This phrase brings up a point about writing historical fiction. I have an exceptional editor who highlights words or phrases not appropriate to my time period. (For example, she informed me that Winston Churchill invented the word underbelly.) But “That’s cool” taught me something additional: historical writers shouldn't use phrases readers believe are modern, even if they're historically accurate. When a word or phrase strikes the reader as incongruous, it takes them out of the story--a mortal sin for fiction writers. So my advice is to rephrase anything that even appears unfit the period of your story.

mystery thriller suspense

There are exceptions, of course. If I were writing The Shut Mouth Society today, I would include Lincoln’s use of the ubiquitously cool slang phrase. Why? Because it revealed one of his personality characteristics and dialogue should always be character revealing.

Just for fun, here's some old, old slang that sounds modern.
Trip the light fantastic – 1632
High jinks – 17th century
In the dumps – 1534
Elbow grease – 17th century
Nose out of joint – 1581
Plain as the nose on your face – Shakespeare
Sing a different tune – 1390
Play fast and loose – 16th century cheating game
Give short shrift – Shakespeare
Fish out of water – 1380
Hocus-pocus –1656
Hair of the dog that bit me – 1546
Shirt off your back  - Chaucer
Cutting off your nose to spite your face – 1658
Lift oneself by the bootstraps – Shakespeare
Without rhyme or reason – 16th century
Proud as hell – 1711
Break the ice – 18th century or older
Add insult to injury – 1st century
Bite the dust – Homer
Mountain out of a molehill – 1570
In one ear and out the other – 1583
Hem and haw – 1580
Win one’s spurs – 1425
Other fish to fry – 1712
Unable to see the woods for the trees – 1546
By hook or by crook  – 12th century
Lock the barn after the horse is stolen – 1390
Donnybrook -  1204, riotous fair in city of same name
Philadelphia lawyer – 1735

Now, that's cool!


  1. "That is cool!" there means something like "That takes some nerve!"

  2. Agreed, but 'cool' is still used in that manner.

  3. Its true that he said that but the thing is it had a different meaning.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  6. the more you know

  7. I read that Lincoln said "That is cool" in a book.

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