Studying History on Its Own Terms

By Rob Kyff

October 7, 2020 3 min read

"The British are coming! The British are coming!" Ah, how Paul Revere's historic call to arms still echoes in the ears of all patriotic Americans!

There's only one small problem: Paul Revere probably never uttered those words. Because Americans were themselves British, they didn't call the soldiers of their own nation "the British." Historians believe Revere actually cried, "The Regulars are coming!" which sounds more like the exclamation of a waitress in a neighborhood diner.

Similarly, many of the words and phrases used by our nation's founders provide clues about their motivations, fears and aspirations.

The framers of the Constitution, for instance, referred to a "federal" rather than "national" union, because "federal" came from the Latin word "foedus," meaning "treaty." Realizing that the 13 states saw themselves as separate entities and feared giving up power to a central government, the founders were trying to spin the new union as an alliance among fully sovereign polities.

In fact, until the Civil War, when Americans referred to "my country," they meant their state, not the United States. Robert E. Lee, for instance, turned down Abraham Lincoln's offer to command the Union army by saying, "I cannot fight against my country," meaning Virginia.

That war changed a lot. Before it, Americans most often used a plural verb with "the United States" ("the United States are"), but after the war, they almost always used a singular verb ("the United States is").

The framers' discomfort with the reality of slavery is evident in the many euphemisms they used to camouflage this institution in the Constitution. Nowhere in the document do the words "slave" or "slavery" appear.

Instead, slaves become "those bound to Service for a Term of Years," and the slave trade turned into "the Migration and Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit." And you thought the evasive doublespeak of today's politicians was bad!

Women, of course, were left out of the Constitution and the government entirely. But the American Revolution did bring a slight but telling linguistic modification.

At about this time, women began using a different pronoun to describe property owned by their husbands. Before the war, for instance, Abigail Adams' letters to her husband, John, referred to their farm as "yours"; after the war, she began referring to it as "ours."

On such subtle shifts in wording, mighty revolutions have begun.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: skeeze at Pixabay

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