Tom's words

February 28, 2009

The word "inauguration" entered English in the early 17th century from the Latin, inaugurare. This literally meant "the taking of auguries," but had come to signify an official beginning because, in Roman times, any major undertaking was preceded by the consultation of augurs: priests who minutely examined the flight of birds to work out what the gods thought.

It's rather the other way round now. A new president speaks, and the world probes his every tic for portents—witness the wild claim that Obama's mangling of his oath means he is not, technically, president. Still, inaugural addresses are mass verbal events of a rare kind. In 1921, loudspeakers first brought one to a crowd of over 100,000. In 1923, live radio broadcast arrived; in 1949, television. Today, thanks to the internet, 2bn people can—for 20 minutes—agree that the world is all about words.

Obama saved his best lines for last, invoking none other than George Washington who, during the darkest hour of his presidency, "ordered these words be read to the people: 'Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.'" Oddly, Obama failed to mention the actual author of "these words"—Tom Paine, who wrote them in his 1776 article "The Crisis"—but his speech's culmination in this image of the transforming power of words surely bodes well for a presidency that has long promised to value dialogue, engagement and the frank articulation of great difficulties. Those who like to read the signs might also note that the word "crisis" itself featured four times, while there were only three mentions of "hope" and one of "change." To quote another great line on the nature of power: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.