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Let's Look At The Language

November 20, 2010

The Mayflower Compact

"Having undertaken ... a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience."

In November 1620, 41 British subjects put their names to the agreement that included the preceding words (and that in its entirety was not much longer). Conceived and signed as a voluntary commitment to support a self-administered communal government in what became Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, this was the Mayflower Compact, and it was America's first written constitution.

If you can get past all the legal jargon, not to mention the 400-year-old language, you get the idea that these were some remarkable words. First, though, it should be noted that not all of what I've quoted or stated so far here is necessarily precise. The original document does not exist, so the Mayflower Compact as we know it is as faithful a rendering as we have.

The oldest known copy was handwritten between 1630 and 1654 by William Bradford, an original signer and prominent leader of Plymouth Colony. The earliest list of signers that exists is from 1669, so it can't be said with certainty that it is completely accurate, but there's little doubt that the signers were free adult males as well as some male servants.

We don't know what the original document was titled, or if it was given a title, and the best evidence shows that the words "Mayflower Compact" did not appear until 1793. Prior to that, it had been referred to variously as "an association and agreement," a "solemn contract," and "the covenant." Even the date of the signing (Nov. 11, 1620), which is believed to be correct, is not without ambiguity. I'm sure I'm not the only one who, back in grade school, learned that the Mayflower Compact was signed on Nov. 21, 1620, which agrees with our current Gregorian calendar. The passengers of the Mayflower, however, were 10 days "ahead" with the old Julian calendar.

While the precision of the facts may be subject to debate, the significance of the Mayflower Compact in American history is not. This was no long-planned or tediously deliberated document. You might even say it was an emergency measure. The ship sailing from England to Virginia, where the passengers would settle under the auspices of the British Crown and Virginia law, had veered off course, well outside the security of a governing structure. The English Separatists ("Pilgrims") aboard feared disruption by those passengers not affiliated with them or their cause. So before they dared set foot on uninhabited, ungoverned terrain ("the northern parts of Virginia" -- actually, Cape Cod), they made an immediate resolve to stem the tide of possible anarchy and use words -- and only words -- to forge a new and civil society.

One year later, these same Pilgrims would literally reap the harvest made possible by the language of the law hurriedly set forth on the deck of the Mayflower at the conclusion of their three-month voyage to a strange land. It's an awesome bit of our history -- and not just the history of American events, but also the history of American language. There is really no better way to express that than just to wish you all a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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