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sockdolager (sok-DOL-uh-juhr) noun

1. A decisive blow or remark.

2. Something exceptional or outstanding.

[Of unknown origin, apparently from sock.]

This sockdolager of a word has an unusual claim to fame in the US history. It turned out to be the cue on which John Wilkes Booth fired his shot at President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was watching the play "Our American Cousin" in Ford's Theater on that fateful night. His killer, Booth, an actor himself and aware of the dialog, knew the line that brought the loudest burst of laughter from the audience was:

"Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologising old man-trap."

Booth fired his gun at that precise moment to muffle the loud noise of his shot with the guffaws from the audience.

"This year's storm was a sockdolager. The white stuff pounded the East Coast."
Be Prepared, Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), Jan 17, 1996.

Today is Presidents' Day in the US. It's observed on the third Monday of February to commemorate two of the most popular US presidents: George Washington (born Feb. 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (born Feb. 12, 1809). Until 1971 both of these birthdays were observed as public holidays, Then, with typical American efficiency, we took the average of the two dates and marked a single day -- third Monday of February -- to honor not only Lincoln and Washington but all US presidents. In fact, almost all US holidays are now observed on Mondays to create a nice three-day long week-end.

It's an interesting exercise to look into this best-known office in the world. It lasts only four years yet billions of dollars are spent to reach that fabled post. The job entails extensive travel, public speaking, commanding a large army, and making decisions that affect, for better or worse, the remotest corners of this earth. To celebrate Presidents' Day, this week we'll look at a few words with presidential connections. -Anu


I have learnt silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers. -Kahlil Gibran, mystic, poet and artist (1883-1931)

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