Word Routes

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!

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Ben Zimmer 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:

Friday December 7th 2012, 9:12 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Thanks for a fascinating article dealing with the way words are used--or not used--over time. I've worried over this very problem in my own writing, but had no idea there was a place where words and phrases can be checked for use in a particular time period. I'm reminded of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers, where she has her aristocratic characters use "ain't" and other informal language. Even to a Southerner, it sounds quaint and over-the-top, though it is historically accurate. And, as her many fans will attest, her use of language is a plus. I'm sure--however incorrect--the language in "Lincoln" will also prove to be a plus.
Sunday December 9th 2012, 10:50 AM
Comment by: mac
i have yet to see Lincoln and your selection of clip in which he says, "I like our chances now", does jar a bit but i kind of suspect had i seen this within the larger scope of the movie it wouldn't have raised the needle on the uh-oh meter. one more thing: ironically, choosing to use "thirteenth amendment" does not help the contemporary audience, as i suspect the odds are great that most Americans watching this movie hadn't an idea how it pertained when they entered the theater.
Sunday December 9th 2012, 9:04 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
I wish to second much of what Meredith C. wrote. I'm working on a piece of historical fiction, and had no idea just how complicated it can be to get the dialogue right both technically and artistically; to mix some metaphors, your essay simultaneously raised the bar and provided license to limbo.
Sunday December 9th 2012, 10:30 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Thank you, Craig J. I LOVE when anyone seconds anything I have to say! What time period are you using in your writing? I'm curious about how difficult the language was at the time. My novel is set in the England of the 1900s, which seems straightforward, but I find that it isn't always--which makes me a little nervous.
Sunday December 9th 2012, 11:48 PM
Comment by: Martin V. (NY, NY)
yes, i was profoundly moved by steven spielberg's film "lincoln" as inhabited by daniel day-lewis and written by tony kushner (among many other virtues including a wonderful sally field), but please, somebody, help me out here:

is there any linguistic justification for abraham lincoln
to beseech a couple looking for help with a toll road to
"call" there governor and tell him they're in favor of the
thirteenth amendment?

is this perhaps a 19th century euphemism for "call UPON him", or call OUT To him"? i heard a fellow sitting near my say "write him" immediately after hearing lincoln speak the words.

i would love to hear what people have to say about this.



oh, and, mac ... "i like our chances now" jumped out a bit, but i could imagine it might have been in use at the time.
Thursday December 13th 2012, 12:41 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
Meredith C.: The story I'm working on involves the Lewis and Clark expedition. There is an incredible amount of detailed information on the subject, incl. a book entitled "Lexicon of Discovery', books on all or special portions of related correspondence and journals, and academic data bases. In your case, 20th century England, the rate of change in language and the number of distinct and distinctive dialects within England and across class lines probably mean you can get away with almost anything as long as it isn't too incredibly cheesy. Good luck deciding how to proceed.
Friday December 14th 2012, 12:32 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Craig J. Your subject sounds very interesting and I know how it feels to find so much good information on your topic. I was thinking that David McCullough had done a book on these men, but when I looked it up, I couldn't find one. I'm wondering if you're writing a novel or a documentary kind of book, but I don't think this site is for conversation. I'll say that I made the mistake of scaring myself by having Lords and Ladies in the novel at first. And that got very complicated for me, so I took them out. Let's hope I don't get cheesy. Good luck with your book.
Friday December 14th 2012, 1:11 AM
Comment by: Martin V. (NY, NY)
hi, it's martin v. again just hoping for some help with my query about "'calling' your governor" from an early scene in spielberg's "lincoln".

would really appreciate some feedback when you get a chance ... and even some crosstalk ... {:-)

mar v.
Friday December 14th 2012, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Martin,

I just checked the script for "Lincoln" (which you can find online here), and the relevant line is: "Perhaps you could call on him and inform him of your enthusiasm." (This is said by Lincoln to Mrs. Jolly about her representative in the House, the fictional Josiah "Beanpole" Burton of Missouri.) I think that's also how Daniel Day-Lewis delivered the line, as call on rather than plain call. So that doesn't seem anachronistic to me.
Friday December 14th 2012, 4:39 PM
Comment by: Martin V. (NY, NY)
no, that's correct, ben, and thank you for taking the time to research this and get back to me, but i saw the film twice, and very distinctly heard mr day-lewis say "call him" ... but nobody caught it. i plan on seeing it again but i think i'm right ... if you see it again will you please let me know?

thank you very much,

marty v.
Friday December 14th 2012, 6:35 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Martin: I uploaded an audio snippet here so you can judge for yourself. I still hear it as "call on him."
Saturday December 15th 2012, 1:37 AM
Comment by: Martin V. (NY, NY)
wow, ben, you have great access to wonderful things! thank you so much for clearing this up!

take care,


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