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I came across the word stinketh in the following sentence of the article titled, An American King: Noah Webster’s Holy Bible in New Yorker September 29 issue.

Abraham Lincoln, born in 1809, sucked the King James, and good thing. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” If Lincoln had been weaned on Webster, the Gettysburg Address would have stinkethéd.

I checked dictionaries at hand and Google search for the definition of the word in vain. What does stinketh mean? Does it have something to do with stink? Is this a popular word? Or did the writer, Jill Lepore, deliberately use a flourish word to keep the tone of her writing in tune with the theme of Noah Webster’s scorning the King James Bible?

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It's a (very bad) attempt to reproduce medieval language, when the third person present singular of "to stink" would have been "he stinketh". The past tense is a bit vague even today, but I doubt it was ever stinkethed. The writer is just trying to imply that Webster promoted archaic language usage - which is complete tosh, as I'm sure you know. –  FumbleFingers Oct 1 '11 at 0:27
    
...Webster was a great moderniser, and he's responsible for many/most of those cases where American spelling is more "logical" than British. That hack in the New Yorker is ignorant of his own heritage. –  FumbleFingers Oct 1 '11 at 0:30
    
@FumbleFingers Would you consider writing an answer? I'm not the OP, but I think you've got it. –  simchona Oct 1 '11 at 1:11
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The writer is saying that it's a good thing that Lincoln was familiar with the King James version, because otherwise, his language in the Gettysburg Address would have lost much of its spirit; the writer argues that Webster went too far in modernizing the poetic language of the King James Bible, in effect taking away its energy and beauty.

By looking at the context, we can see that "Lincoln, born in 1809" would not have been raised hearing "Webster’s “Holy Bible … with Amendments of the Language” [which] appeared in 1833". The writer uses the unusual construction "Lincoln sucked the King James" in reference to the style of the King James version itself, and the idea that the book could figuratively "give suck", as discussed earlier in the piece:

There is a great deal of sucking in King James. (It was often said, in the seventeenth century, that the good book itself “gave suck.” “Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments” was the title of a popular catechism.) Not in Webster’s. Job was “nursed.” Other infants are “nourished.”

Similarly, the writer chooses stinkethéd to emphasize the choice of language from the King James version:

When Lazarus has been dead for four days, in the King James (John 11:39), “he stinketh.” In Webster, “his body is offensive.”

The writer is saying that the Gettysburg Address would have stunk if Lincoln had been influenced by Webster, perhaps meaning us to associate this both with the current meaning of inferiority (the address would have been less than incredible) and the reference to death earlier in the piece (the language would have been lifeless).

Stinkethéd is probably a past tense created by the writer. (The accent on the -éd indicates that this syllable would be pronounced on its own, as might be needed to fit the rhythm of music or poetry, something like stink-eth-ed instead of a two-syllable stink-eth'd). Invented or not, this is a familiar pattern when we are meant to recall an archaic style. This Catherine Tate clip shows an exaggerated example that references Shakespeare:

Looketh at my face. Looketh at my face. Ist this a bovveréd face thou seest before thee?

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Firstly, "sucked the King James" in the context of the article, means "adhered to the language style and conventions of the King James bible rather than those of the Webster's revision of the Bible."

Secondly, "stinkethed" is the author's frivolous contrivance to mean that the Gettysburg Address would have stunk had it been written using the more mundane language conventions of Webster's revised Bible. Specifically, the author is referring to Lincoln's use of the more archaic "four score and seven" (in the style of the King James Bible) as opposed to Webster's apparent preference for the shorter, more modern form "eighty-seven."

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Looks spot on to me. As a Brit, I wouldn't know anything about the New Yorker - but if they pay people to write that kind of drivel I don't think I've missed much. I can't get my head around the idea of someone seriously suggesting we should revert to the language of 400 years ago, so I have to assume it's a send-up. But to cast Webster as a villain in the history of language for not endorsing "four score and seven" just sounds nonsensical. –  FumbleFingers Oct 1 '11 at 2:28
    
If you read the actual link, it makes pretty clear that in this case sucked was what today we'd call "suckled" (eg: nourished oneself with it at an early age). They actually made the King James' sucked vs. Websters nourished one of the points of the article. –  T.E.D. Oct 12 '11 at 19:17
    
@FumbleFingers - The New Yorker is a bit of a bastion of elitisim. Some good stuff comes out of there, but yeah. –  T.E.D. Oct 12 '11 at 19:19
    
@Fumble: I'm assuming that your criticism of 'four score and seven' rather than 'eighty-seven' in the Gettysburg Address is itself a send-up. But you shouldn't do that, you know; some people really don't understand why one scans better than the other. –  TimLymington Oct 12 '11 at 21:56
    
@TimLymington: I have no problem with language usage in the Gettysburg Address. I think it's excellent (in the same way I rate Shakespeare highly), but I certainly wouldn't want to turn back our linguistic clock. I've only just followed the actual link, and all it's done for me is confirm my earlier suspicion that the author is neither witty nor wise, and that she has limited proficiency in both modern and antiquated linguistic registers. –  FumbleFingers Oct 15 '11 at 18:19
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