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The birthday boys: Darwin and Lincoln

It would be churlish to neglect some of the other Aquarians marking birthdays this month, and I’m pleased to me able to recommend a couple of essays on Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln.

It’s a commonplace to refer to the evolution of language as a parallel to biological evolution — the extinction of old words, the adaptation of existing words to new contexts, the generation of new words that may or may not lodge themselves in the language. Language Log has posted an essay by W. Tecumseh Fitch on Darwin’s understanding of the evolution of language. It is well worth a look.

One would have imagined that nothing remains to be said about Abraham Lincoln, but John Fabian Witt’s essay, “Lincoln’s Laws of War” at, describes Lincoln’s role in shifting the formal military code of combat from the idealized rules favored by Gen. George McClellan to a more aggressive prosecution of the war, while preventing “modern warfare from sliding into total destruction."

The code developed in Lincoln’s administration “reduced the international laws of war into a simple pamphlet for wide distribution to the amateur soldiers of the Union army. It prohibited torture, poisons, wanton destruction, and cruelty. It protected prisoners and forbade assassinations. It announced a sharp distinction between soldiers and noncombatants. And it forbade attacks motivated by revenge and the infliction of suffering for its own sake. Most significantly, the code sought to protect channels of communication between warring armies. And it elevated the truce flag to a level of sacred honor.” It codified, in short, the basic principles that have become international norms.

Not bad work for a commander in chief whose entire military experience in the Black Hawk War, he joked, amounted to “a good many bloody struggles” with mosquitoes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:18 PM | | Comments (2)


Well, if "northing(sp) remains to be said about Abraham Lincoln," maybe we should try something from the South.


Language change -- new words forming or acquiring new meaning, etc. -- is not, I think, the same as biological evolution. Or at least, biological evolution has overall resulted in ever-greater complexity; not so with languages, I don't think, again in the narrow sense of words coming and going, or even grammar changing over time. That's change, but not necessarily evolution.

Anyway, just a thought. The essay is nice. :-)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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