Cover of The Civil War: An Illustrated History
Every time I watch The Civil War, Ken Burns 1990 documentary, I pause in linguistic wonder at this observation by historian Shelby Foote.
Before the war, it was said “the United States are.” Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always “the United States is,” as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an “is.”
— The Civil War: An Illustrated History (1992, paperback)
The Civil War, he notes, was a semantic crucible for American English and for American culture. Until the war, states indicated a plurality. “The War” changed that. The American psyche adopted a new word that had been sitting in our constitutions and declarations from the beginning: we.
The supremacy of our individual and state identity gave way to a collective, federal identity. That’s probably the most powerful message and lesson in what it means to build relationships. Americans agreed to and upheld a single brand message ever since.
The Gettysburg Address represents the best known example of this branding process. Yet, these subtle shifts —these to the, are to is—demonstrates the power of word selection. Words are ultimately, mere symbols. And so are brands, whether the enterprise be civic or commercial.
Know that as a writer, I am not posting this as a glib pundit: my family lived, fought, and died on the fields and in the times when this shift occurred. I will be forever grateful. Each time I write, I am reminded that every word matters — whether it’s building a brand, relationship, or writing a card.
What do you think? What’s your experience?
How does word placement affect your social or business choices? Have you been surprised immediately or only later on?
Please post your response here, bookmark, or share with a friend.
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