Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Happy Lincoln/Darwin Day!

Today marks the bicentennial of two of the most influential minds of the modern age: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Besides sharing a birthday, Lincoln and Darwin also shared an eloquence with the English language, despite the very different prose styles of their work. In a new book, Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnik argues that this shared eloquence allowed them to impart their world-changing visions. But what about on a more basic level, that of the individual word? What lasting contributions did Lincoln and Darwin make to the English lexicon?

To investigate this question, I did a search of the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary to find out which words in the dictionary were first used by either Lincoln or Darwin. Keep in mind that the OED can only tell us the first known use of a word, and this earliest recorded appearance is always subject to revision (or "antedating," as it's known in the lexicography game), unless we know for sure that a person coined a particular word on a particular date. The results, nonetheless, were rather surprising: Darwin contributed the first citations for a whopping 144 words in the OED, and Lincoln only one!

Lincoln is remembered for his immense rhetorical power — phrases like "four score and seven years ago," "the mystic chords of memory," "the better angels of our nature," and "with malice toward none" have been rightfully enshrined in the pantheon of American political oratory. But Lincoln was not a linguistic innovator: he used preexisting words to communicate his ideas forcefully. The only word that the OED credits to him is a facetious one (fittingly, given his keen sense of humor): Michigander, a playful epithet for someone from Michigan. In 1848, he referred to General Lewis Cass as "the great Michigander." Since Cass was said to resemble a goose, Michigander was especially appropriate, combining Michigan with gander. Since Lincoln's time, Michigan natives have embraced Michigander as a somewhat self-effacing term, though they're probably not comparing themselves to geese.

Darwin, on the other hand, was a lexical dynamo, in large part because he needed a revamped vocabulary to map out the new terrain of evolutionary biology. No doubt his most famous contribution to the lexicon is natural selection, a term that he first used in an 1857 letter before elaborating on the concept two years later in The Origin of Species. A related term often attributed to Darwin, survival of the fittest, was not actually his coinage: Herbert Spencer introduced the phrase in his 1864 Principles of Biology, a work that connected Darwin's natural selection to Spencer's economic theories. (Darwin himself borrowed the phrase back in the fifth edition of The Origin of Species, published in 1869.) Phylogeny, referring to the evolutionary development of a species or higher taxonomic group, was also a Darwinian neologism.

Other terms first recorded in Darwin's work had to do with the mechanics of biological descent, such as the verbs interbreed and cross-fertilize. (Darwin wrote a whole treatise in 1876 on "the effects of cross and self-fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom.") He was also the first to write in English about the archaeopteryx, a fossil find that helped bolster his evolutionary theories. (The paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer is credited with introducing the Greek-derived term archaeopteryx first in German.)

Darwin imported many foreign words into English in his work as a naturalist. For instance, in his journal recording the famed voyage of the HMS Beagle, he wrote of alfalfa, a Spanish word that ultimately derives from Arabic and Persian. Even more surprisingly, Darwin was the first known English writer to use the Spanish word rodeo, which appeared in a Beagle journal entry after he observed a cattle round-up in central Chile.

Interestingly enough, Darwin was the first known writer to use a word that would come to describe religiously motivated opponents of his theories: in an 1859 letter he wrote, "What a joke it would be if I pat you on the back when you attack some immovable creationists." Creationism, however, had already made an appearance in 1847, in Carl W. Buch's translation of C. R.. Hagenbach's Compendium of the History of Doctrines.

You can find some more examples of Darwin's lexical contributions in the word list that I created here. It's got everything from exophthalmos ("protrusion of the eyeball from the socket") to nutate ("rock, sway, or nod; usually involuntarily"). Who knew Darwin was a pioneer in the evolution of words too?


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 12th 2009, 7:32 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks Ben, this is really interesting and informative.
Thursday February 12th 2009, 10:43 AM
Comment by: JoAnna T. (Rock Rapids, IA)
To be politically correct and not appear biased, you'll be writing an article on Creationism and words first used from the Bible writers too, right?

I am not holding my breath.

P.S. It's just a theory, but I think Lincoln is considered the greatest U.S. President in history. Too bad he didn't get equal weight in your article as your headline suggested.
Thursday February 12th 2009, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Anonymous: The article is on neologisms, specifically those from Lincoln and Darwin, both of whom are to be celebrated on their 200th birthdays. It's not about the merits of Darwin's work, or the battle between evolutionary vs creationist thought. There's no need to create controversy where there isn't any.

As to your suggestion, since the Bible was originally written in ancient languages, it doesn't even make sense to consider it in the context of English neologisms. However, a good topic for a future article would be the effects of translating the Bible from its original languages into English over the centuries. There's a wealth of insight and controversy to be found in examining the semantic shifts that resulted.
Thursday February 12th 2009, 3:31 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
I'm here for the thesaurus, or more pointedly, the words. Lincoln provided us with one, Darwin with a multitude. Many of Darwin's words are necessary to engage in a rational, pro-creationism debate. A debate that is proper in a forum for that purpose.
Thursday February 19th 2009, 9:52 PM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
This is a thought provoking and actually touching subject.

Lincoln and Darwin both wanted to communicate to a broad audience. Lincoln wanted to convey emotional, moral information to the full spectrum of the American populace to change hearts and minds. Darwin wanted to use the same words in the same language to convey new ideas never before articulated as part of an intellectual discussion that had enormous underlying emotional power in that it suggested changing what was familiar for something new that would possibly be received as a frightening heresy.

How wonderful that the language, in its American and English versions, accommodated them both, Lincoln with many of its most modest words beautifully combined into powerful language so beautiful that we remember phrases today independent of the source, but still applicable to the ideas of freedom and sacrifice and dignity for all, and Darwin with the adoption of words and phrases to convey the very new. Natural is a word, selection is a word, put them together and you open a door to a new world. Magic.

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