We're coming up on the 240th anniversary of the signing of the chief founding document of the United States, the one we call the Declaration of Independence—now its official title, even though that wording doesn't appear on the document itself. When written, the document called itself "the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America," admittedly less catchy than the name that now prevails.

The Declaration is not a long read at just over 1300 words, which is slightly longer than the average Language Lounge column—but you will not find any other amalgamation of 1300 words in native English that have had so profound an impact on the world we know today. What interest does the Declaration hold for the modern speaker or student of English?

A good place to start is at the beginning. The first sentence of the document, which weighs in at a whopping 71 words, clues up today's reader that what follows may well be TL;DR for the average distracted smartphone-wielding modern reader. Sentence one is a meta statement, an introduction to the document that tells you why the document exists. Long before the Paperwork Reduction Act was even a twinkle in the eye of our national legislators, the Founding Fathers had it in mind to let us know why they were putting this document before us. Here's how the first sentence goes:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

With more than half a dozen clauses and numerous anaphoric relations, the sentence is not one for the faint of heart. Criticism from Britons that the American colonists were ruining the English language ought to have been silenced by sentences like these, whose eloquence still reaches down to us through nearly two and a half centuries. If the Founding Fathers had tweeted, as our modern politicians do, they might have phrased this statement along the lines of "We're breaking up with King George and going it alone; here's why!" So there are reasons to be grateful that Twitter didn't exist two and a half centuries ago.

The next two sentences of the Declaration (a good readable version of the whole text is here) alone give us four phrases that have found an enduring home in English, as this NGram shows:

Google NGrams are not the only modern language analysis tool that can shed interesting lights on the famous founding document. Here, for example, is a word cloud of the Declaration of Independence:

The standout words are states, laws, people, and government. If the Founding Fathers were in Composition 101 today, they would surely be given high marks for maintaining thematic unity. The Declaration is, among many other things, an exploration of the relations that ought to prevail among these four entities, and the ways in which these relations had gone terribly wrong for Americans in the making, the people who lived in the thirteen colonies.

The middle section of the Declaration is a list of grievances against the King of Great Britain, in which his many failings and transgressions as a just ruler are cataloged. This section takes up almost exactly half of the Declaration, 656 words. In another word cloud, the standout words of that section are laws, people, and assent, again demonstrating the very focused message of the Declaration on the problems arising when people are unjustly governed. The colonists'; grievance around assent  was the King's refusal to give royal assent to laws passed in the colonies, which would have enabled the laws to be promulgated. By systematically refusing assent, the King was effectively preventing the colonies from instituting any dependable form of self-government—an understandable complaint. The founders were careful not to use the word "royal" anywhere in the Declaration, perhaps signaling thereby their refusal to recognize the King as having any authority in their lives.

Today we are likely to think of the word state, by overwhelming association, as designating one of our 50 states, a member of our federal union of states; but alongside this meaning the older, core meaning has persisted, "a politically organized body of people under a single government," and it's important to keep in mind that this was the only meaning of state the founding fathers knew: for them, the state of New York or the state of Virginia were analogous to the state of France. The phrase united states appears only twice in the Declaration, once in the heading (see photo at top, where united is lowercase and in a different size than States) and once in the body of the document, where united is again in lowercase. The seemingly uncleavable compound we know today, United States, was a coinage at the time of the Declaration. The founding fathers were using united simply as a descriptive adjective, and they were rolling the compound around on their tongues as a novelty.

State is not the only word in the Declaration whose primary connotation or meaning has shifted. When the text says "let Facts be submitted to a candid world", it does not mean candid in the sense "characterized by directness in manner or speech", but rather, "free from bias or prejudice". When we read that the American colonists "have conjured [their British brethren] by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations" there is no magic involved, because here conjure means "ask for or request earnestly".

Any document as old and lofty as the Declaration is bound to contain words that lie outside today's mainstream of usage, and these words also provide an opportunity to study some obscure corners of English. Using the VT's Vocab Grabber and sorting the words by familiarity produces a small trove of little-used English treasures at the bottom of the list, among them, perfidy, usurpation, sufferance, unwarrantable, and consanguinity. There is a wealth linguistic and lexical discovery awaiting the modern reader of the Declaration. You may come for the history, but you can stay for the goldmine of word discoveries.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 1st 2016, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
As a foreign friend, I have always wondered - Why did the Congress believe that these lofty principles were not available to the Confederate States?
Friday July 1st 2016, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Marilyn B.
Simply, thank you.

Sincerely,
Marilyn Blundin
Saturday July 2nd 2016, 2:45 PM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
It would be very difficult to find a more elegantly written statement of the case. Would that our own "leaders" today could wax so eloquently and with such power that we could really believe them. As a fellow wordsmith, an appreciative thank you. John Erickson, Mechanicsburg, PA
Monday July 4th 2016, 8:27 AM
Comment by: JOHN F. (FREDERICK, MD)
A response to Geoffrey BH: I believe the organizers of the Confederate States thought those lofty principles were available to them, and in a somewhat ironic twist, hoped that the King of England would come to their aid in asserting them.

John Frye
Reedville, VA
Monday July 4th 2016, 9:19 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
Thank you, John F. Irony indeed.
Britain may be asserting a similar right if and when leaving the EU. Britain acting on behalf of England, Northern Ireland and - reluctantly - Scotland, Wales, and I think Cornwall!

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