Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
The Language of "Lincoln"
For my latest Boston Globe column, I talked to screenwriter Tony Kushner about how he crafted the dialogue for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." I had been intrigued about Kushner's script-writing process after hearing that he had consulted the Oxford English Dictionary to check any word that might have been inappropriate for the film's 1865 setting. While the results of this painstaking work are admirable, it's always possible to nitpick over possible anachronisms.
In the past, I've indulged in similar nitpickery over such televised dramas as "Mad Men" (set in the 1960s) and "Downton Abbey" (set in the 1910s and '20s). Lest it seem that I can't enjoy any period drama without picking apart the dialogue, I want to make it clear that I'm not particularly bothered by occasional linguistic anachronisms. I agree with what Kushner told me in the interview for the Globe column: in writing a period-specific screenplay, the writer has a duty in "not making it sound like a historical waxwork." The dialogue must, above all, speak to a contemporary audience. Judicious use of anachronistic language has its place, as long as the audience isn't distracted by questionable lines.
That said, determining the ways that a historical screenplay veers from the documented language of its time period is itself a worthwhile exercise. Benjamin Schmidt, a doctoral student at Princeton University and a fellow at Harvard University's Cultural Observatory, has reached many fascinating conclusions by comparing scripts from period dramas with historical language use as reflected by the digitized volumes on Google Books. Check out his Prochronisms site for more, as well as his appearance on the Lexicon Valley podcast.
One thing that is clear from Schmidt's work is that while screenwriters (and audiences) may have a good ear for discerning when individual words are anachronistic, it's less easy to pick out when combinations of words are unlikely to have been used in a historical setting. By using Google's "Ngram Corpus," Schmidt has been able to study these word combinations, or "collocations," more systematically, since it's possible to make a statistical analysis of how any n-gram (string of n words) has been used historically in the Google Books collection. (Though Google keeps track of strings of up to 5 words, or 5-grams, Schmidt has thus far focused on analyzing 1-grams and 2-grams in his work on period dramas.)
Consider this scene that appears early in "Lincoln," in which the president (Daniel Day-Lewis) is discussing with his secretary of state, William H. Seward (David Strathairn), whether to push for a vote in the House of Representatives on the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery.
Though there are no individual words in this scene that could not have been said in January 1865, some collocations are suspect. A check on the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that two phrases are highly unlikely for the time: "imagine the possibilities" and "I like our chances." Neither of these are grave anachronistic offenses, but they show how certain collocations can rise to prominence without us being aware that they are particularly "modern."
Elsewhere in "Lincoln," other too-modern phrases helped with the story's exposition. As noted on Slate's Explainer, references to "the Thirteenth Amendment" are a bit out place: politicians of the time "would have called it, for example, 'the Constitutional amendment,' or 'the Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.'" But calling it "the Thirteenth Amendment" helps the audience along. Similarly, Lincoln and Seward in the film discuss how to award "patronage jobs" to wavering Democrats in the "lame-duck Congress." Modern American movie-goers understand these phrases, but the Ngram Viewer shows that neither "patronage jobs" nor "lame-duck Congress" became common expressions until the 20th century.
Individual words can be subtly anachronistic too, if they have shifted semantically over the years. When Lincoln pays a visit to a Democratic House member to try to sway his vote, the congressman says he can't vote for the amendment because of his hatred for black people. "I'm a prejudiced man," he says. Geoff Nunberg has written about how "the form of the bare adjective ''prejudiced,' with no need to specify the object of dislike," only became popular in the 1950s, thanks in part to Gordon Allport's 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice. Since then, saying that someone is "prejudiced" or "not prejudiced" is implicitly understood to be about racial prejudice.
Other times, usages that sound old aren't particularly old, after all. I mentioned in the Globe column that when Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) says "I snuck in afterwards," his use of snuck isn't quite right. Snuck as a past-tense form of sneak, an alternative to the standard sneaked, is first attested in American dialectal use in 1887. It might feel older, because we tend to assume that "strong" forms of verbs predate "weak" ones. (See Stan Carey's "'Snuck' sneaked in" for more.) Similarly, when conservative Republican leader Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) tells Lincoln that "we've managed our members to a fare-thee-well," that might sound sufficiently old-fashioned, but doing anything "to a fare-thee-well" (to the utmost degree) is evidently a 20th-century development.
I could point out additional lines that are historically out of place (a wounded soldier telling Lincoln "Nice to meet you," for instance), but I'd prefer to focus on the ways that Kushner got things right, all the while avoiding the "historical waxwork" problem of period drama. To use a word that Kushner invented for Lincoln the inveterate wordsmith, let's not grousle!