The most lasting contribution of the poet Will Henry Thompson turns up in a popular phrase, the “slippery slope.” Logicians decry it, politicians warn against it, people set foot on it.
The late great columnist William Safire, who for three decades until his death wrote the column “On Language” in The New York Times, found 2 million citations in Google to the term “slippery slope.” By now, the phrase has itself slid down from poetic imagery to cliché.
Safire went hunting for the origin of the phrase in a 2006 column, “From the Slippery Slope to the Jaws of Defeat.” After quoting a few utterances as far back as 1894, Safire concluded that Thompson’s “may have been” the earliest usage. N.Y.Times, Jan. 1, 2006.
Here is Thompson’s line, which refers to the Union repulse of Pickett and Pettigrew on July 3 at Cemetery Hill:
They stood, who saw the future come
On through the fight’s delirium;
They smote and stood, who held the hope
Of nations on that slippery slope
Amid the cheers of Christendom.
Thompson may have fought for the South with his father and brother, but he returned gladly to the Union. His oration on Lincoln to the Washington legislature proves that. No one writes much about Confederate reconciliation, but many veterans did the same.
Perhaps Thompson deserves a biography. Instead, obscurity is his portion. Surely he would have a welcomed his poetry’s making one permanent contribution to the language.