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If Obama had been Lincoln: 10 lines from Obama’s Second Inaugural Address that wouldn’t have been used in 1865

When writing his screenplay for the film Lincoln, playwright Tony Kushner used his copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to check for possible anachronisms, seeking to impart the flavor of 19th-century English to the script. How much has the vocabulary of English changed since Abraham Lincoln’s presidency? About 25% of the OED’s entries are for words which entered the English language after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, including racism (1926), leftist (1924), and boycott (1880). The chart below shows the OED’s headwords by decade of their first recorded date, highlighting the surge of new words in the late-19th century.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that 25% of English in contemporary use consists of words adopted since 1863. The core vocabulary of English is ancient, and it is difficult to utter a sentence that doesn’t include at least some words dating back over a thousand years. (The youngest word in the previous sentence is vocabulary, which is currently first attested in the OED from 1532.) Furthermore, developments in the meaning and usage of words are less easily recognized than new coinages, but no less potent as a force of language change—probably more so.

When Barack Obama was inaugurated for the second time last month, he deliberately invoked Abraham Lincoln: he used Lincoln’s Bible (along with that of Martin Luther King, Jr.) for the swearing-in, and his speech alluded to the address given by Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his own second inauguration almost one hundred fifty years earlier, referring to “blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword.” (Lincoln said, “. . . if God wills that it continue. . . until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”) That particular flourish saw Obama, like Kushner in his screenplay, self-consciously looking back to the rhetoric of the 19th century, but this was a speech of 2013; as a lexicographer, I wondered how many words and phrases used in Obama’s address hadn’t even existed in Lincoln’s day.

It goes without saying that many of the ideas expressed in Obama’s speech—gay rights, expansion of the information infrastructure, the very fact of there being an African American president—would have been unimaginable in the 1860s. But how much of Obama’s vocabulary would have been available to Lincoln? Reading Obama’s second inaugural address through the lens of the OED, we can identify a number of words and meanings that didn’t exist at Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865. Really, though, these are the exceptions that prove the rule: culturally, socially, and technologically, our era and that of Lincoln may be separated by a chasm, but the vocabulary we share remains surprisingly constant in spite of the relentless lexical churn of neologism and obsolescence.

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1.  Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

During the 19th century, the word vulnerable referred to susceptibility to injury or attack, but it had not yet developed this nuance, denoting people within society, such as children, the elderly, and those with disabilities, who are regarded as being in special need of protection and support. The OED first records this newer sense as appearing in 1947.

2.  . . . preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.

The word freedom dates to Old English, but its use as a count noun meaning ‘a right’ or ‘a civil liberty’ is a relatively recent development, with OED’s first example (sense 4c) coming from 1892. This usage became more common after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously enumerated the ‘four freedoms’ in 1941:

1941   F. D. Roosevelt in Oakland (Calif.) Tribune 6 Jan. 8/6   In the future days…we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression… The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way… The third is freedom from want… The fourth is freedom from fear.

3.  For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

In the 1860s, the Russian Revolution was still half a century away, but Lincoln would have been familiar with the word communism, which was coined in France in 1840 and appeared in American newspapers the same year. The word fascism, on the other hand, did not appear in English until the 1920s.

4.  No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.

In the 1860s, the word math had barely come into existence as an abbreviation for mathematics. Throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries, it was colloquial, and the phrase ‘math teacher’ didn’t begin occurring with frequency until the mid-20th century. Lab followed a similar trajectory from its origins as a colloquial abbreviation of laboratory in the late 1800s.

5.  My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment.

The phrase “my fellow Americans” was uncommon in 19th-century political oratory. I can find only one example of it being used in the 1860s, in a speech by Representative Samuel Shellabarger (R-Ohio) in 1863. Then, around the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt began peppering his speeches with the locution, and it has since become a fixture in the national rhetoric, perhaps used most famously by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address in 1961: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

6.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.

There were deficits in Lincoln’s day, but there wasn’t “health care”. The phrase originated in the United States, but not until the 1940s.

7.  The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.

The phrase sustainable energy is first attested in the OED from 1976; environmentalism, in the sense ‘concern for the natural environment’, first appeared the previous decade.

8.  We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice.

The sense of marginalize represented here (‘to treat as marginal or peripheral’) only dates from the 1970s. The word was used very rarely in the 1800s, when it had the meaning ‘to make marginal notes upon.’

9.  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.

The use of gay to refer to homosexual men and women is not definitively attested until the 1940s. It was originally slang, and though it has since become accepted in standard English, this high-profile use of the word in a presidential address was regarded by many commentators as historic.

10.  . . . until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.

The term “workforce” wasn’t commonly used until the mid-20th century, around the same time that economic statistics like gross domestic product, gross national product, and the unemployment rate rose to prominence.

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It is striking that many of these novel usages, which did not become common until after World War II, underscore a greater collectivism and sense of social responsibility in American society. The notions of the vulnerable and the marginalized, of health care and the workforce as topics of national concern, are so natural to a contemporary English speaker that it is surprising to see that they have developed during the lifetimes of today’s retirees (incidentally, another word that is first recorded in the mid-20th century, in 1935). Obama alluded to Abraham Lincoln and the struggle for freedom from bondage, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s freedom from want reverberated through the speech as well.