Few things are as changeable as the word. The meanings we assign to any given word, the words we place around it, and the context in which they are spoken or written affect the overall perception of what we express. I might be biased in my opinion because I’m a speech-language pathologist and make my living by working with words. I don’t think I’m alone in my opinion, though; Lincoln believed this too.
I never imagine Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. I’m more interested in the way he went about writing it. Lincoln is known to have planned most, if not all, of his speeches carefully and typically didn’t add or delete words extemporaneously. In my imagination, I see him testing the way the words sounded in his mouth, examining among shades of meaning for the perfect word, noting the rhythms the words made when linked together, sometimes pondering all this during a walk, sometimes writing his words at his desk. No matter what his actions were, though, he was always searching for the right combination of words to express what was in his heart and mind.
The end result of Lincoln’s work was more than a dedication speech. It provided a new and lasting rationale for the Civil War and a defense of the actions of Lincoln’s administration. The ways in which Lincoln combined his words, elegant and powerful in their simplicity, achieved a verbal alchemy in which the whole is much greater than any single word. I think this is why these 272 words have stood the test of time. Who else but Lincoln could have managed such a feat?