Just A Few Important Words About The Declaration Of Independence : The Two-Way Along with the words and phrases that still ring out 239 years later are less noticed turns of phrase. They say a lot about the messages Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers wanted to send.
NPR logo

Just A Few Important Words About The Declaration Of Independence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/419243874/420019786" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Just A Few Important Words About The Declaration Of Independence

Just A Few Important Words About The Declaration Of Independence

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/419243874/420019786" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

We've got another politics story, but this one goes way back, all the way back to the founding of this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Reading) We hold these truths to be self-evident...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Reading) That all men are created equal.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading) That they are endowed by their creator...

WESTERVELT: Those voices were recorded last year on the National Mall. This year, to celebrate the Fourth of July, we're examining the text of the Declaration of Independence, but not the parts you've heard over and over again. The smallest details of phrasing in that declaration were crucial. Many words carried hidden meanings, small proclamations meant to legitimize aspirations for independence and little barbs for the British. It's part of Mark Memmott's job to pay attention to how we use words. He's NPR's supervising senior editor for standards and practices. Welcome, Mark.

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

WESTERVELT: OK, point us to a word in the Declaration of Independence that we might not have paid that much attention to.

MEMMOTT: I should say right here that I learned a lot about this this week from Professor Stephen Lucas, University of Wisconsin-Madison. The word is necessary.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Reading) When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people...

MEMMOTT: (Reading) It becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.

The signers and the Continental Congress were telling the world that revolution was inevitable, or unavoidable.

WESTERVELT: Anything else jump out at you, Mark?

MEMMOTT: Well, there's a very interesting line I hadn't thought about, where they introduce the complaints they have against King George III. They begin the list with this - they say to...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) ...To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

MEMMOTT: Let facts be submitted to a candid world. They were basically saying that these aren't allegations or accusations. These are facts. And a candid world, one without bias, is going to know that these are true.

WESTERVELT: And I understand there are some literary devices embedded in the document as well. Tell us about that.

MEMMOTT: Yeah, Eric, I learned a new word this week - chiasmus.

WESTERVELT: I don't know it.

MEMMOTT: I didn't know it either. It's when you take two parallel phrases and you invert the second one. The chiasmus in this case comes at the end of a section about the British people. The declaration tells the British people that Americans see them as, quote...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Reading) Enemies in war, in peace friends.

MEMMOTT: Enemies in war, in peace friends. Now today, a speechwriter would probably write enemies in war, friends in peace. But that chiasmus, enemies in war, in peace friends, slows the text, especially when read aloud, which the declaration was as it was taken around the country. It puts an emphasis on that idea that America and Britain would be allies again one day.

WESTERVELT: Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for standards and practices. You can write to him at wordmatters@npr.org. Mark, thanks a lot and happy Fourth of July.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome, glad to be here.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.