Did Anyone Say 'Racial Equality' in 1865? The Language of Lincoln

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"Peace talks" didn't exist. Civil War soldiers weren't named Kevin. There's a lot to learn from the subtle anachronisms of Tony Kushner's Oscar-nominated script.

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Wikimedia / Touchstone

Audiences and critics have lauded the Lincoln, which this morning received an impressive 12 Oscar nominations, for its dedication to accuracy. From Abraham Lincoln's high voice to Thaddeus Stevens's black mistress, Steven Spielberg's movie shows a commitment to reproducing some of the less-known aspects of the past.

But when playwright Tony Kushner said in an interview with NPR that he checked every word in his script that sounded out of place, it piqued my curiosity. As a historian working with huge textual databases, I've noticed that even the historians, linguists, and writers most invested in the past can be blind to the many ways language gradually changes over time. Last spring, I wrote an article for The Atlantic about the many minor anachronisms in Mad Men. Given that Lincoln is set a full century earlier, I was pretty confident there was no way Kushner could have succeeded. Lincoln must be full of mistakes. Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing. Kushner is a master of the English language, and Spielberg has been forthright about both striving for accuracy and his studious departures from slavish reproduction. Unlike some other historical dramas, like Django Unchained or Hyde Park on Hudson, Lincoln seems to really care about giving its audience an authentic picture of the past. If we want to know to know what the limits of historical accuracy are, there's no better place to look than Lincoln.

I'm not the first to look at the historical accuracy of Lincoln's language. But by using massive databases of digital texts—in particular, the Ngrams corpus that Google created in collaboration with the Cultural Observatory at Harvard, where I have a fellowship—I can do it very comprehensively. Kushner relied on his ears to know when to look up a particular word. I lack that sensitivity, so instead I have a computer program that can tackle the problem more crudely: It simply checks every single word and phrase of up to three words (in Lincoln, there are 15,000 of them) to flag places where the script seems to be departing from language published in books. This "anachronism machine" produces dozens of potential leads I can track down in dictionaries, old newspapers, and other sources.Using computers for tasks like this is useful because it gives a completely different perspective. The statistics can help uncover shifts in American language and culture over the last century and a half that no one has noticed—although we still have to decide what they mean.

It turns out Kushner didn't reach for that OED as much as he could have. Mary Todd complains about Thaddeus Stevens's "prosecutorial" interest in her accounts, but the word wasn't used at all until 1934, and not widely until Watergate. As others have noted, everyone said "sneaked," not "snuck," until the 20th century, and the "barrage" of artillery Edwin Stanton plans for Wilmington only entered English around 1900. And the "bipartisanship" at the heart of the movie's narrative? The dictionary says the term only entered the language in 1909, although I've found a few occurrences from the 1890s.

What's really interesting about having scores of errors is that they let us see what kinds of mistakes a historical drama makes. Many are of the sort that only linguists would find interesting: extremely rare noun forms for verbs ("abstention" and "frustrating") or verbal forms of nouns (railroads "switch" in the 1860s, but not much else does), and several misused prepositions (changes to instead of changes in, support for instead of support to, and so forth).

But other anachronisms can remind us how diverse the sources of modern English are. When Congressman Ashley frets that the amendment is "absolutely guaranteed" to lose, he's speaking in the language of late 19th-century newspaper advertisements, not mid-century politics. Every war seems to create hundreds of new words, and Kushner can't avoid them: Two different characters talk about "signing up" for the army, which comes into the vocabulary during World War I. Before the Boer war, Mary Todd would almost certainly have worried about sharpshooters, not about "snipers." Even events "overseas" (another Mary Todd anachronism) shift the vocabulary of the everyday. I was surprised when the program tagged a soldier named "Kevin" as extremely unlikely, but sure enough, the Draft Registration records from 1863-65 show only a single "Kevin" pulled into the entire Union army, compared to many thousands of "Georges" and "Michaels." According to the Social Security Administration, it wasn't until 1912—seven years after Sinn Fein was founded, when trends in Irish nationalism could spread to the United States—that more than five American families a year named a child after Saint Cóemgen.

No one will be surprised that swears and slang have shifted. Even aside from four-letter words, which are extremely hard to track through print, milder curses like "get the hell out" and "Jeez" are almost certainly out of place. There shouldn't be three characters who say "Yeah" (which most dictionaries don't have until 1905), for example. A more surprising counterpart, though, is that the language of politeness has changed in ways that we tend not to notice; a frequent category of errors in the script, apparently, are pat phrases like "Nice to meet you," "Could you please," and "Good to see you." Same goes for priggish language: Almost no printed books use George Pendleton's phrase "highly unusual" until 1900 or so.

Social changes have transformed the language of the country as well as the city. Lincoln refers to his father as a "smallholding dirt farmer" to emphasize his humble origins. Before 1890, though a "small holding" might refer to the land, but one would not speak of a "smallholding farmer" as Lincoln does. Much less a "smallholding dirt farmer," because while "dirt farmer" is an evocative phrase, it was essential unheard of in the period before farming stopped being the only way of life imaginable to most Americans. Young Mr. Lincoln, the other great movie about the president, makes this sort of mistake again and again. Spielberg and Kushner, though, don't spend as much time in nostalgia for rural America. The only similar mistake is having the Speaker of the House refer to a congressman's ""hometown" newspaper, a word that was very rare before most Americans lived in cities.

Lincoln is less successful in keeping out the language of politics and war. The Confederate olive branch, the movie's major subplot, seems to offer Kushner a minefield of modern language to stumble through. "Peace talks," his favorite, was used widely to describe negotiations involving the IRA and the PLO, but doesn't seem to have much history before Vietnam. "Peace plan" is almost as bad, while "peace offer" and "peace delegation" both appear only a few times before Versailles. These sorts of words are commonplace in any traditional history, so they should appear in printed language as well. Just to see how Americans actually described the affair, I checked 3,700 newspaper pages from the first four months of 1865 to see what words were actually used after "peace." "Peace mission," "peace interview," and "peace negotiations," none of which Kushner uses, would have been closer to the language of the time. Kushner's "peace proposal" was considerably rarer at the time than "peace proposition." About the only phrase that Kushner gets right in this subplot, in fact, is "peace commissioners."

The language of political equality has changed enormously as well. Even the phrase "13th Amendment" is out of place. At the time, people just said the "constitutional amendment" or the "slavery amendment": It had been 60 years since the last amendment, and no one was in the habit of numbering them. The same sort of mistake dogs the movie's discussion of racial equality. One particular character makes more than his share of this sort of mistake: the radical Congressman Asa Vintner Litton (Stephen Spinella, playing a composite character who seems most closely based on Henry Winter Davis). In one of the film's key scenes, Stevens refuses to state his belief in full equality to Congress in order to help the amendment on its way. Litton is furious: "You refused to say that all humans are, well... human!" But in 1865, referring to people as "humans" was slang, not an elevating way of being inclusive. Had a real Asa Litton wanted to express the notion of universal equality, he would have, like Thomas Jefferson a century before or Lyndon Johnson a century later, mentioned "all men;" even if he were being gender-neutral, he would have said "persons." In a similar vein, Litton and Ashley each talk about "racial equality" and "race equality" as the eventual goal, but the phrase would have been "Negro equality." Nowadays, that sounds like a completely meaningless difference, but actually, the difference between "Negro" and "racial" equality underscores just how adaptable American racism can be. One of the strangest results of "Negro equality" in Reconstruction was a short period when the California supreme court re-interpreted a law that prohibited blacks, Native Americans, and Chinese from testifying against white men: Thanks to the actions of the Radicals in Congress, blacks were now free from Chinese testimony as well.

This sort of nitpicking is fun enough, but no historical drama set so long ago could avoid having dozens of mistakes. And Kushner got plenty right. Running the algorithm in reverse lets us see what kinds of phrases the script resurrected from linguistic purgatory. The most characteristically 19th-century word is Lincoln's invocation of "flubdubs," while every part of his cry "Old Neptune, shake thy hoary locks" is pitch-perfect.

Besides, even the most dedicated historians agree moviemakers shouldn't place pinpoint accuracy above all other goals. That's why historians who have criticized the film focus on not on minor flaws in language, but on more substantive grounds such as the script's omission of the role that slaves played in abolition, or the ways that Kushner seems to praise the South. It's right that the most nuanced discussions of the film have centered on issues like these, not fact that Lincoln's face didn't appear on the currency.

If we can take anything from the profusion of slips in speech from Lincoln's time to ours, it's that we can't expect the past to answer our present problems for us right away. When Lincoln finishes meeting with the Richmond commissioners in the movie, he gives them a lecture on the "democratic process" and the examples they can give the world (and by implication, future generations). But while veneration for the "democratic process" is at the heart of Kushner and Spielberg's tale, it's actually another anachronism. Contemporary accounts of that meeting—show Lincoln telling another of his strange yarns, less funny than the ones in the movie, comparing Southern planters suing for peace to hogs rooting in the frozen ground. It would make a terrible addition to the film. But it's not the worst reminder how different the past was, and how impossible it is to summon it back.

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Benjamin Schmidt is an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University and and a core-faculty member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks.

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