Lincoln’s “Anachronisms”


[UPDATE: Benjamin Schmidt has an excellent in-depth response in the comments which is well worth reading. He also has an FAQ on his website that answers a number of questions about his process.]

I am obviously fascinated by historical dialects and historical language in general. How did the founding fathers speak? How about Lincoln? What did a Mississippi twang sound like in the Antebellum South? Did the Puritans sound like modern East Anglians?

I was excited, then, to find historian Benjamin Schmidt’s discussion of the linguistic anachronisms in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln over at the Atlantic. Unfortunately, I was left baffled by Schmidt’s analysis. Take this quibble, for instance:

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.

I’m not sure what Schmidt is getting at here, but “absolutely guaranteed” was clearly used in government documents spanning the 19th Century. But even if it weren’t, it would be less an “anachronism” than a run-of-the-mill noun phrase.

Apparently ordinary adjective phrases are also up for debate:

Same goes for priggish language: Almost no printed books use George Pendleton’s phrase “highly unusual” until 1900 or so.

But there are any number of examples of the term being used in texts before the Civil War (such as this one). Again, Schmidt’s gripe is so easy to prove wrong that I have to believe he’s attempting to express something that I’m not grasping.

At least in one case, even a single page of Google Books results contradicts his observations:

“Peace talks,” [Screenwriter Tony Kushner’s] favorite, was used widely to describe negotiations involving the IRA and the PLO, but doesn’t seem to have much history before Vietnam.

Except it has lots of history. “Peace talks” dates to at least the early 19th-Century (with second-hand attestations dating to the 18th), frequently used in reference to negotiations with American Indians. For instance, here is a description of Native American customs dating from 1820:

Peace is determined on and concluded by the head chief and his councilors, and “peace talks” are always addressed to them. In some cases, when the resentment of the warriors runs high, the chief and his counsellors have been much embarrassed.

It’s possible history shows Lincoln didn’t favor the term in this context (there were no Native Americans involved), but again, that’s quite different than terming said phrase “anachronistic.”

It’s also worth noting that the title of Schmidt’s article is “Nobody Said ‘Racial Equality’ in 1865: The Anachronistic English of ‘Lincoln’.” But in fact, people did say this in the 1860s, and in precisely the way it is meant in contemporary times. Here is a passage from a racist anthropological text from 1866, only a year after Lincoln’s death:

Either the one of the other would dissipate his day-dream of racial equality within an hour of its acceptance. The inferior character of the Negro is as distinctly stamped on his organization as on his destiny, and only minds blinded by the idol of preconceived ideas could fail to see the one as well as the other…

Take what I’ve said here with a grain salt: several of these texts are British, not American, and I’m not debating that some of these terms may have been infrequent back in the 1860s.

But therein lies the problem. If you are going to criticize the “anachronisms” of a work of historical fiction, they should be actual anachronisms, not simply language that was “uncommon.” A dramatist of Tony Kushner’s talent, after all, is not in the business of writing “everyday” dialogue.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
This entry was posted in American English and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Lincoln’s “Anachronisms”

  1. dwk says:

    I guess that by Schmidt’s logic the entire movie was an anachronism, since it was “unusual” for a President to lead the nation in a Civil War and free the slaves!

  2. Ben Zimmer says:

    As yet another Ben on the “Lincoln” anachronisms beat, I’d recommend you check out Ben Schmidt’s Prochronisms blog, particularly the FAQ post in which he addresses some relevant concerns.

  3. Ben Zimmer says:

    (My columns on the language of “Lincoln” are here and here.)

    • Thanks, Ben! I’ve long been fascinated by Kushner’s process, especially when it comes to language. It’s wonderful that you got the opportunity to speak to him about it!

  4. Ben Schmidt says:

    Thanks to Ben Z. for pointing me to this and linking to that FAQ I wrote: I put that up because I know the sort of thing I call an anachronism is maybe possible, but extremely unlikely, and that not everyone agrees with that.

    My basic schtick is that we can learn a lot more about how language changes by thinking about word frequencies than by assuming a word simply exists, or doesn’t. So the first step is to see if they’re “infrequent” or not, as you say. Individual words and phrases tend to shift dramatically in usage frequencies: and that these massive increases in popularity are usually connected to shifts in meaning.

    So it’s not just that the phrases were rare back then: it’s that they were rare because they didn’t work in as many different contexts as they do today. And the ways they’re used tend not to match against the historical record. Eg, not only is “absolutely guaranteed” quite rare until it hits widespread circulation in newspaper ads in the late 19th century; it’s also used (as you note) in a very constrained domain of legal language, with a different definition of guarantee that would make “absolutely guaranteed to VERB” a very strange construction (for instance, who’s doing the guaranteeing? Not a question we ask today, but part and parcel of 19th century use.) (I have a post about what I call prematurely dead metaphors, which is another species of this same thing.) “Peace talks” is similar: it’s both extremely rare and, when it appears, is (at least as far as I could tell when writing it) always in reference to talks with Indians. (I shouldn’t have said ‘little history,’ though, it’s true; ‘constrained history,’ maybe.)

    I think the bit in the piece about how only one soldier drafted from 1863-1865 was named “Kevin,” because I think it captures the dilemma nicely. Is it anachronistic to name a soldier “Kevin” in a Civil War movie? Can we say Kushner is “using 20th century names” by using it, or was it just an “uncommon” name at the time? I think it’s obvious what’s going on there: he’s just trying to throw out the signal that a character is Irish, and mistakenly assumes Irish-Americans have always had the same sort of names. I’d like to say that it is an anachronism, and would be even if there were 10 or 50 Kevins in the Union Army instead of 1.

    But if someone wants to say “no, that’s obviously not an anachronism—it happened once!” that seems perfectly logical to me, too, just a little doctrinaire. I think anachronism is more a spectrum than a binary: if there had actually been 0 Kevins instead of 1 in the 1860s, I don’t think it would change anything. Whether a soldier named Kevin was “extremely unlikely,” “unheard of,” or “impossible,” it would still be a piece of the present uneasily trying to fit in with the past. Same with the language.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Ben. When I suggested you were “attempting to express something that I’m not grasping,” I meant that sincerely. I think there were many things I simply failed to grasp in your original post, and I’m grateful you dropped by to clarify. (And sorry I didn’t see your response earlier; I’ve been out of town the past few days.)

      I completely agree with you that “anachronisms” are as much a matter of context and semantics as words themselves. A 19th-Century sailor and a 21st-Century surfer might stand on the same beach and speak of the same “awesome waves,” yet express two entirely different sentiments. Both are “impressed” by what they see, but the implicatures of fear vs. delight are vital to their respective meanings.

      What I missed in your original post were some of these contextual distinctions. For instance, you took issue with Mary Todd’s use of “overseas,” although Google NGram suggests the term enjoyed wasn’t quite unheard of in the 19th-Century (albeit spelled “over seas” or “over-seas”). Far from dismissing your point outright, I felt there were some unanswered questions: are you employing specific restrictions on the term that I’m missing (e.g. using it adjectivally, as in “an overseas adventure?”) Are we going off the strict orthography of “overseas?” Is there a specific “frequency cut off” at which point we deem a term too rare to be believable?

      When I expressed my “bafflement,” then, I didn’t intend to suggest any scholarly chicanery on your part. I simply felt that there were many nuances of context, semantics and frequency that I didn’t immediately get from reading the article. I am aware that this the pot calling the kettle black, by the way: I should know more than anyone how hard it can be to condense several paragraphs worth of explanation into a sentence or two! My quibbles aside, I have the utmost respect for your work, and it’s given me more to think about than just about anything I’ve read online this year.

    • Paul Ó Dubhthaigh says:

      Kevin is not a 20th century firstname. It’s the angliscation of the Irish Caoimhín which has been around in one form or another since the Old Irish period (500-1000AD).

      If I search the US census of 1860 I see plenty of men with combination of Kevin (or Keven) as a first name and an Irish surname. Likewise if I do a search through US military records for the Civil war period.