I noted that in his eulogy of Nelson Mandela, President Obama said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” This was an obvious and, I’m sure, deliberate reference to words uttered upon the death of Abraham Lincoln. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes that there is no certain record of who said exactly what at the moment Lincoln died, but it has come down to us that Secretary of War William Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” It was appropriate that Mr. Obama use these words for Mr. Mandela, who will fill a place in South Africa’s history comparable to Lincoln’s status as “America’s secular saint.”
While we’re on the subject, though, let us consider the tawdry use of these words to describe commonplace events, as in “this is one for the ages” employed to describe dramatic events in sports. I first heard it in 1997 when CBS announcer Jim Nance summoned the phrase to characterize Tiger Woods’ 12-shot victory in his first Masters tournament as a pro.
Since then the phrase has shown up more and more often in sports broadcasts to mark unusual plays or exceptional comebacks. It was probably used to describe Auburn’s 109-yard kick return to win last weekend’s Iron Bowl. But these events are NOT for the ages. They are part of mere games and don’t merit the language used to honor saviors of nations. So let’s show some respect for truly great men and women and reserve “for the ages” to those who are genuinely worthy of it.