“Yesterday, December 7, 1941–a date which will live in infamy–the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
This was how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened his address to Congress almost three quarters of a century ago. The word “infamy” still resonates, even after so many years. It was the perfect word.
Other phrases have stood the test of time: “Four score and seven years ago…” “We the people…”
Why do FDR’s words live in our cultural consciousness and not what President George W. Bush said on September 12, 2001?
The “Infamy Speech” was carefully crafted to show the world how the U.S. was the victim of aggression by Imperial Japan. “Infamy” is a strong word that stresses long-term, negative feelings. FDR wanted to highlight the negative with such a word. The passive voice shows the U.S. as the party acted upon, underlining the idea of victimization.
Why didn’t Abraham Lincoln just say “Eighty-seven years ago…”? He wanted to lengthen the expression to reflect the span of years and highlight the historical nature of Gettysburg’s dedication. “Four score and seven years ago…” is also an old-fashioned way to describe a number, again providing the flavor of history.
“We the people…” are the first three words of the Constitution because the people are what the government is based upon. Self-governance by the people is the prime purpose of the U.S. Government, and these words on the primary document of the nation makes sure there is no mistake about that.
Finding the perfect words isn’t easy. It takes hard work and an awareness of the environment surrounding the written piece, the purpose of the piece, and the audience to whom the words will be addressed.
Said so many years ago, “infamy” still lives.