The language of Abraham Lincoln

I got to see Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” recently, and it was a dazzling film. Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, was incredible, but he had a great script to work with. Screenwriter Tony Kushner really nailed it. Ben Zimmer at the Boston Globe writes about how Kushner pulled it off:

One key to making the language historically suitable, he told me, was having the 20-volume print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary close at hand. A complete set of the OED—which includes deep histories of all its entry words, with examples—was one of his first purchases when he started earning money from his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, “Angels in America,” Kushner said. Through the many drafts of “Lincoln,” he checked every word that he thought might not have been appropriate for 1865.

The 20-volume OED is about $1,300, by the way. But the dialogue in “Lincoln” really is a treat to listen to, so I’d say it was money well-spent. And Tommy Lee Jones’ character (Thaddeus Stevens) has some especially good lines. Well-done, Mr. Kushner. Very impressive work. I am a little disappointed, though, that grousle isn’t a word anywhere.

And, again, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance was flawless — and surprising. Add to the long (and getting longer) list of things I did not know: Abraham Lincoln apparently had a high-pitched voice. Not high-pitched like a woman or a crying cat, but higher than what you’d expect coming from such a large man — in stature and presence. Civil War scholar Harold Holzer wrote last year at Smithsonian.com about what Lincoln might have sounded like:

When Holzer was researching his 2004 book Lincoln at Cooper Union, he noticed an interesting consistency in the accounts of those who attended Lincoln’s speaking tour in February and March 1860. “They all seem to say, for the first ten minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured,” says Holzer.

Same with Daniel Day-Lewis. After about 10 minutes, the incongruous voice starts to make sense and it just becomes part of the character.


Here’s an interview where Daniel Day-Lewis talks about finding the voice he used.


The trailer for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”


Tommy Lee Jones using words as weapons in “Lincoln.”

Of course the very best Daniel Day-Lewis character ever is Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York.” So here’s a clip from that movie for no reason at all. Enjoy.

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