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Abraham Lincoln in his famous letter to his son's teacher asks the teacher to teach his son the secret of quiet laughter. Is this expression an oxymoron (like deafening silence)?

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    I don't know the content of the letter, but I would interpret it as being more literal: laughing inwardly without making noise, rather than laughing out loud and risking offending someone if laughter is not situationally appropriate. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 '14 at 13:52
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    I like your explanation. You should have made it an 'answer' rather than a 'comment'. – Prasad Shrivatsa Jul 20 '14 at 14:05
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    This letter exists in many internet posts but is of doubtful authenticity and unknown provenance as an actual letter by A. Lincoln. The meaning of the phrase in question is likely to stand as a matter of interpretation. – GMB Jul 20 '14 at 14:48
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The famous letter that Abraham Lincoln didn't write

According to an online article by Thomas F. Schwartz, "Lincoln Never Said That," on the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency website, the supposed letter from Lincoln to his son's teacher is not by Lincoln at all. It is the fourth of ten examples Schwartz cites of quotations misattributed to Lincoln:

  1. A popular undated letter found on internet sites that allegedly was written to the headmaster of a school in which one of Lincoln's sons was studying:

...

...Teach him the secret of quiet laughter. Let him learn early that bullies are easiest to lick. ...

Although Schwartz doesn't speculate about who wrote the supposed letter and when, the results of a Google Search for specific phrases from the bogus letter make pretty clear who the author was.

A Google Books search for the phrase "secret of quiet laughter" produces 40 or so unique matches— all of them variants of the "Teach him [this, that, and the other thing]" wording that Schwartz quotes in his article. Most of the matches are from the past couple of decades, and many are from India. A typical example is A. B. Rao, Business Ethics and Professional Values (New Delhi, 2006), which introduces the supposed letter as follows:

The role of a school teacher in inculcating values of discipline and good conduct in young schoolboys, has been clearly suggested by Abraham Lincoln in a letter written by him to the Head Master of the school in which his son was studying. ...

A few versions of the supposed letter go back to 1969 and 1970. But one goes back to 1958, and it isn't presented in the form of a letter to someone, but rather in the form of a speech to a meeting of the Colorado Education Association by its incoming president. The journal in which the speech appears is visible only as a snippet view, so it takes some time to piece together the whole speech. For that reason, I'm going to spare any other interested party the effort by reproducing the relevant part of the speech in full. From a speech by Robert A. Morton to the Colorado Education Association, published in Colorado School Journal, volume 74 (1958) [combined snippets]:

Little did I believe a year ago as I sat at this luncheon that I would be here today as the incoming president of the CEA State Department of Classroom Teachers. I stand before you humble, honored and somewhat humiliated at the thought that anyone would be interested in my comments, particularly in the role of a speechmaker.

...

The Child at the Center

First of all, we must center our thoughts on the child and as he starts to school, we accept the responsibility of his training.

This morning he’s going to walk down the front steps, wave his hand, and start out on the great adventure. It’s an adventure that probably will include war and tragedy and sorrow. To live his life in the world requires faith and love and courage. Let us take him by the hand and teach him the things he will have to know—Reading, Riting, Rithmetic and Recreation. He will have to learn that all men are not just, that all men are not true ... but teach him also that for every scoundrel, there is a hero. That for every selfish politician there is a dedicated leader. Teach him that for every enemy, there is a friend.

It will take time, but teach him, if you can, that a nickel earned is of far more value than a dollar found. Teach him to learn to lose—and to enjoy winning. Steer him away from envy, if you can, and teach him the secret of quiet laughter.

Let him learn early that bullies are the easiest people to lick.

Teach him the wonder of books, but also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on a green hillside. Teach him that it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat. Teach him to have faith in his own ideas and ideals, even if everyone tells him they are wrong. Teach him to be gentle with gentle people and tough with tough people. Teach him not to follow the crowd just because everyone else is getting on the band wagon. Teach him to listen, but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth and take only the good that comes through.

Teach him, if you can how to laugh when he is sad. Teach him that there is no shame in tears. Teach him that there can be glory in defeat and despair in success. Teach him to scoff at cynics and to beware of too much sweetness. Teach him to sell his brawn and brains to the highest bidder, but never to set a price on his heart and soul. Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob—and to stand and fight if he thinks he is right. Teach him to have courage to be impatient, but let him have the patience to be brave. Teach him to have faith in himself because then he will have faith in mankind.

A Job That’s Big Enough!

This is a big order, but let us see what we can do. He’s such a fine little fellow. You see, he’s somebody’s son. He’s tomorrow’s minister, tomorrow’s scientist, tomorrow’s doctor, tomorrow’s citizen.

It probably takes a lot of us to get the job done. But let me add, teach him as if you were the best teacher he is ever going to have.

It also takes a lot of us to get the job done in our profession; to work and protect the heritage of this treasured job of teaching. We are all here to work together in helping to form the policy and direct our staff and board into action for the coming year of the Colorado Education Association. . . .

It's a nice speech, and it's ten years older than the next-oldest article that uses similar language in a Google Books search—but it isn't by Abraham Lincoln.


What is "the secret of quiet laughter"?

At this point I will assume that you are still interested in what the author meant by "the secret of quiet laughter," even after learning that the author is Robert A. Morton and not Abraham Lincoln.

According to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate (2003), the only nonarchaic meaning of the word laughter has an essential connection to sound:

laughter n (bef. 12c) 1 : a sound of or as of laughing 2 archaic : a cause of merriment

This definition suggests that "silent laughter" would indeed be an oxymoron, in the same sense that "deafening silence" is. But MW's definition of "a sound of laughing" doesn't imply a specific minimum volume, and therefore a quiet but audible laugh would not be a contradiction in terms, even under the dictionary's standard.

In my view, "quiet laughter" has much in common with the idea as "laughing to oneself." The crucial idea here is that you find something amusing, and you experience the full humor of it, but without making a display of your mirth or distracting others or (in some instances) hurting their feelings or enraging them. Once you've learned the secret of internalized laughter—or quiet laughter—it doesn't much matter whether you laugh aloud, laugh softly, or no make sound at all. The crucial thing is that you enjoy all the pleasure of a good laugh in the privacy of your own mind.

In this regard it's worth noting that Merriam-Webster's entry for the intransitive verb laugh (as opposed to its entry for the noun laughter) includes a number of soundless options:

laugh vb (bef. 12c) 1 a : to show emotion (as mirth, joy, or scorn) with a chuckle or explosive vocal sound b : to find amusement or pleasure in something {laughed at his own clumsiness} c : to become amused or derisive {a very skeptical public laughed at our early efforts —Graenum Berger} 2 a : to produce the sound or appearance of laughter {a laughing brook} b : to be of a kind to inspire joy

Definitions 1a and 2a of laugh clearly describe verb counterparts of MW's definition of laughter; and it seems to me that definitions 1b and 1c of laugh make good counterparts to "quiet laughter."

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