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How Tony Kushner made Lincoln talk

The movie’s vivid 19th-century dialogue is an achievement of its own

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Imagine that you’re Steven Spielberg and you need a script for your new film: a meticulous re-creation of the final months in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Keep in mind that it’s a modern Hollywood blockbuster but is set a century and a half ago. It portrays real people with distinctive regional quirks, and revolves around perhaps the greatest orator in American history. Oh, and it’s two and a half hours of mostly talking. How would you ensure that the language of the film was just right?

What Spielberg did, after some false starts with other screenwriters, was to hire Tony Kushner, a playwright with a talent for channeling diverse voices and whose only previous movie work was on Spielberg’s “Munich.” Whatever its other cinematic virtues, “Lincoln” is undoubtedly a linguistic achievement, imbuing vintage 19th-century dialogue with contemporary ­vibrancy.

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Curious about how Kushner pulled it off, I got in touch with him to learn more about his writing process. 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.

Occasionally, browsing through the volumes led to serendipitous discoveries. Looking for a word for a White House party occurring early in the film, Kushner initially thought of shivaree, an American take on the French charivari. He was disappointed to learn that shivaree specifically referred to a wedding celebration. But then his eye landed on a nearby entry: shindy, just after the similar shindig. That word for a merry gathering fit the bill nicely.

Though “Lincoln” was originally planned as an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book, “Team of Rivals,” little of Goodwin’s narrative survived in the final version, focusing on the unlikely passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The bulk of the script was informed by Kushner’s own research into primary and secondary sources, providing both a factual basis for the plot and period-specific phraseology for the script.

Lincoln himself provided excellent linguistic fodder for Kushner. In preparation for the shindy, the movie’s Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) counsels his wife Mary (Sally Field), “Don’t spend too much money on the flub-dubs.” The colorful expression was based on the real Lincoln’s reported reaction to a steep bill for Mary’s improvements to the White House decor, which he called “flub-dubs for that damned old house.”

Later in the film, Lincoln suggests to the shady operative W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), who is busy procuring Democratic votes for the amendment, that he should “hop on a train to Phil-del.” That shortening of “Philadelphia” is another ­Lincolnism, appearing in a bit of light verse that he composed after the Union victory at Gettysburg: “In eighteen sixty three, with pomp, and mighty swell / Me and Jeff’s Confederacy, went forth to sack Phil-del…”

Kushner so immersed himself in the president’s earthy yet powerful language that he eventually felt comfortable coining his own ­­­­Lincolnese. When the chief proponents of the 13th Amendment complain that they can’t convince enough House Democrats to break ranks, Lincoln snaps, “You grousle and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters.” Good luck finding grousle in the OED: Kushner says he made it up. “I just liked the sound of it,” he admitted.

Some of the most memorable lines come from the acid tongue of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), radical Republican of Pennsylvania. The invective he hurls at Democratic foes enlivens the movie, as when he tells George Pendleton of Ohio, “You are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.” For such lines, Kushner drew on documented exchanges involving Stevens, as well as his fiery counterpart in the Senate, “Bluff” Ben Wade.

Kushner also sought inspiration for his dialogue in the work of mid-19th-century humorists, novelists, and playwrights. This deep dive led him to make such adjustments as having the characters use perhaps rather than maybe, which became more common later on. “I think actually a maybe might have snuck into the movie, because one of the actors said maybe instead of perhaps,” Kushner said.

Snuck snuck into the movie, too, in a scene in which Lincoln asks his son Robert about visiting wartime malaria wards with his mother: “I snuck in afterwards,” Robert says. In fact, this past-tense form of sneak only began sneaking into colloquial English in the late 19th century. Viewers might notice that a cruder word that rhymes with snuck also appears in the film a couple of times. The word existed then, but Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the OED and author of “The F-Word,” the definitive history of the term, pegs the movie’s usage as decidedly anachronistic.

Kushner said he felt that making some anachronistic tweaks was justified “in the interest of not making it sound like a historical waxwork.” Picky language types may yet find more to poke at, but if enthusiastic audiences are anything to go by, Kushner and Spielberg managed to strike the right balance of liveliness and verisimilitude. And even if there are slight inaccuracies now and then, it would be churlish to grousle.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.

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