Alexander Hamilton in the OED
Can’t get – or afford – a ticket to Hamilton, the hit musical about US founding father Alexander Hamilton? Try the next best thing, for word lovers at least: Hamilton in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
A life in words
Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was one of the most important figures in early America. Soldier, lawyer, and aide to George Washington, he helped to ratify the US Constitution with his essays in the Federalist Papers, served as the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, founded the Coast Guard, and died in a notorious duel with Aaron Burr. The $10 bill commemorates Hamilton.
Government and economics aside, Hamilton also influenced the English language. By one count, the OED quotes Alexander Hamilton in over 170 different entries. For these quotations, the dictionary draws primarily from his influential Federalist Papers and Letters. It also cites him in reports to the US Congress, addresses to electors, and writings for The New York Evening Post, now The New York Post, which he established in 1801.
When we examine Hamilton in the OED, his quotations don’t merely illustrate the historical usage of particular words and phrases. They also show the wide and varied impact of this important historical individual. A few notable patterns emerge in his OED corpus that can help us trace his lexical legacy.
The language of a new democracy
Many of Hamilton’s quotations in the OED appear under entries for the names of general institutions and offices of government: district court, first magistrate, land-office (which handled land sales and transactions), local council, and local government. Other quotations refer to the people of the new nation: militiamen and mountain boys, ‘fighters from mountainous areas’, like the state of Vermont, which Hamilton called Vermonteers.
Hamilton titled one of his works The Continentalist, a name for someone, like him, who supported joining the colonies together under a central, federal government. He first served as George Washington’s ADC, or aide-de-camp, as he once abbreviated his title in a sign-off to a letter. Hamilton later served as Washington’s Treasurer, the title of this US cabinet post. The OED currently cites Hamilton first for these three terms.
Other quotations describe political processes and principles. Like constitutionality, in which a law, procedure, or act accords with the US Constitution. Or re-eligibility, concerning whether or not a president can stand for re-election. According to the current OED entry, Hamilton first used reapportionment: adjusting a state’s elected representatives based on population. He also first used, in English, separation of powers, which divides American government into separate-but-equal executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. The phrase originally appears in French. Among yet more words, Hamilton brings inauguration, sedition, and run, as in a ‘party runs a candidate for office’, with him to the OED.
Further quotations in the OED display Hamilton’s scholarship of military and political history: Grecian horse (‘Trojan horse’), Jacobinic (‘ultra-democratic’), Neronian (‘tyrannical’), and ostracism (‘banishment’). He was also a forward-thinking student of political arithmetic, ‘the study of the economic and demographic statistics of the state’.
Coining a financial lexicon
Hamilton helped steer his young country’s economic policies, and his quotations in the OED reflect this. The dictionary cites him for bedrock concepts such as tax, direct tax, and indirect tax as well as investment and reimbursement.
The OED also quotes him on more technical commercial phenomenal. Some are still common today, like receivable and speculator. Others are more obscure or rare: affreightment is ‘hiring a vessel for transportation’, while passive commerce denotes when goods from one country are transported by people from a different country. Others are now historical, like registered debt, which the US federal government assumed from its states after the Revolutionary War. Many think this debt was essential to the fledgling democracy’s survival.
Two phrases the OED attributes to Hamilton sound strikingly modern: money machine and money market. He used money machine for ‘the prevailing financial system’ and money market much as we use ‘financial centre’ today. These phrases not only show his economic brain at work but also his linguistic imagination. As do misexpenditure, ‘an improper expenditure’, and reloan, a ‘second loan’; the OED first credits America’s first treasurer for these words.
First Treasurer, first quotations
While a word’s first quotation in the OED only marks the earliest attestation the dictionary finds for it at the time of revision, these special instances still can give us a glimpse into the linguistic energy of an era – and into the minds of its writers, like Hamilton.
We’ve already seen a handful of words and expressions the OED first documents in Hamilton’s writing: separation of powers and money machine are two examples. Others are specialized political and economic usages: alienization, the attributive brevet, irredeemability, and unapportioned.
But there is a surprising handful of everyday and creative usages that number among Hamilton’s ‘firsts’ in the OED. Here are some standouts, as Hamilton used them:
- Extorsive, a rare adjectival form of extort: ‘A complication of extorsive methods’.
- The figurative use of a flourish, ‘a showy movement of the body or limbs’: ‘Their flourishes in the Jerseys, I believe, cannot have cost them less than 6 or 700 men’.
- Misstep, or ‘faux pas’: ‘Those errors which flow from want of due deliberation, or of those missteps which proceed from the contagion of some common passion or interest’.
- The phrase at any moment, referring to ‘an unpredictable point in the future’: ‘They [sc. common and state law] are…at any moment liable to repeal by the ordinary legislative power’.
- The use of pacific for ‘peaceful’: ‘Different principles would be set up by different states for this purpose; and as they would affect the opposite interests of the parties, they might not easily be susceptible of a pacific adjustment’.
- A now-obsolete metaphor of stamina as ‘source of strength’: ‘The stamina of their Military Establishment, are in this country’.
- The figurative use of thermometer, employed much as we now use barometer: ‘No bad thermometer of the capacity of our Chief Magistrate for government is furnished by the rule which he offers for judging of the utility of the Federal Courts’.
A flair for more than Latin
Hamilton’s OED vocabulary owes a deep debt to Latin. He wrote of accommodation and contemplate, disorganize and incompetent, mala fide (the negative counterpart to bona fide), mitigation and obsequious, predilection and prostration, realize and renovate, and of violence and virtuous.
His Latinate lexicon reflects a larger pattern in English: the use of Latin for the language of administration, government, law, and other disciplines. A lot of this Latin was filtered into English through French following the Norman Invasion. But many of great thinkers of the Enlightenment – like Hamilton, who lived at the era’s tail-end – also drew on Latin to build a new vocabulary for their new knowledge, ideas, and discoveries.
But Hamilton didn’t only dress his writing with the stiff, if stately, abstractions of Latin. Many of his quotations in the OED have more panache. He’s quoted for frisk, in the sense of ‘playful movement’. He’s cited for kidnapper, in the literal sense, and prostitute, as a figurative modifier.
In the OED, we see Hamilton use a creative compound, monster-taming: ‘a project of this kind is less romantic than the monster-taming spirit, attributed to the fabulous heroes and demi-gods of antiquity’. We see him use plus in reference to electric charge: ‘he came electrified plus with attachment to France’. We see him use rub through, an old phrase meaning ‘to endure’: ‘we are entered deeply in a contest on which our all depends. We must endeavor to rub through it’. Hamilton is even cited for the first usage of skeleton as an attribution ‘bare minimum’: ‘owing to the skeleton state of our regiments’.
Casting America’s founders as people of color and telling their stories through a hip-hop vernacular, critics and fans of Hamilton the musical celebrate its powerful and contemporary re-imagination of history. But they also celebrate the rich and dynamic language of its lyrics, which is fitting for Alexander Hamilton, whose original mind – and singular tongue – live on in the OED.