Tony Kushner, who wrote Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012), tried to make the English as 1865 as possible – while still making sense in 2012 and not sounding “like a historical waxwork”.
He read all things Lincoln to be able to express himself like Lincoln. He read plays, novels, letters and speeches to know the English of the time. He also has a 20 volume print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary that he bought when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. If a word did not sound right he checked its history in the Oxford. Oh, and he had two historians read the script.
But we have one thing he did not have: the Google Books Ngram Viewer! Put in a word or phrase and you can see how common it was in print over the course of the past 300 years.
Words and phrases in Spielberg’s “Lincoln” that were rare in 1865:
- 13th Amendment – That is how we think of it. They would have just said “constitutional amendment” or “slavery amendment” since it was the first amendment in 60 years.
- absolutely guaranteed – a phrase we get from newspaper ads of the late 1800s
- equal pay – 1880s
- snuck – sounds solidly Anglo-Saxon but comes from 1887. They would have said “sneaked”.
- bipartisanship – from the 1890s
- imagine the possibilities – rare before the 1890s
- barrage – 1900
- highly unusual – rare till 1900
- switched – only railways did that back then.
- other possibility is
- sniper – from the Boer War. They would say “sharpshooter”.
- racial equality – they would say “negro equality”. Racial equality would mean not just blacks and whites but Chinese and American Indians too.
- win the war – from the First World War
- overseas – from the First World War as a nice way to say “colonial”.
- signing up – from the First World War
- speed things up
- Jeez – 1922
- bottleneck – metaphorical use from 1922
- hometown – rare before the 1930s. No one talked much about hometowns till it became common to leave them.
- dirt farmer – 1930s
- democratic process – 1930s
- patronage jobs – 1930s
- lame-duck Congress – 1940s
- intended target
- coloreds – rare till the 1940s
- prejudiced – was not assumed to be about race till the 1950s
- Kevin – an extremely rare name in America in the 1800s. There was only one Kevin in the whole Union army.
- peace talks – rare before the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
- fuck – not a word anyone would have said to Lincoln
- Nice to meet you
- prosecutorial – not common till Watergate in the 1970s.
- humans – slang back then, probably would not have been used in Congress. Did not catch on till the 1970s as gender neutral for “man”.
- someone who – gender neutral for “he who”
- held hostage – 1970s
- I like our chances – 1980s
In short, feminism, urbanization and the First World War shape the English found in “Lincoln”.
Kushner did put in some words and phrases that were more common back then:
- Old Neptune, shake thy hoary locks
- peace commissioners
- Phil-del – a Lincolnism for Philadelphia.
- perhaps – in place of “maybe”
- grousle – made up by Kushner as something Lincoln might have said
Lincoln did use the N-word but not Kushner’s Lincoln.
– Abagond, 2013.
- Benjamin Schmidt: The Atlantic, Prochronism – he also does “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men”
- Ben Zimmer: Boston Globe,
- ‘Lincoln’ Cussing
- Google Books Ngram Viewer – hours of fun! Especially while studying for final exams.
- Etymology Online