Blog Excerpts

Getting the Vocab Right in Historical Dramas: Does It Matter?

On the NPR program "Fresh Air," Berkeley linguist Geoff Nunberg turned to a topic that is one of our favorites: assessing the linguistic accuracy of period dramas, whether it's Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Lincoln or Argo. In an age obsessed with authenticity, Nunberg argues, we often choose to nitpick over the wrong details.

In his "Fresh Air" piece, Nunberg cites the work of our own Ben Zimmer, who has written about anachronisms in the scripts of Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Lincoln. An excerpt:

Has there ever been an age that was so grudging about suspending its disbelief? The groundlings at the Globe Theatre didn't giggle when Shakespeare had a clock chime in Julius Caesar. The Victorians didn't take Dickens to task for having the characters in A Tale of Two Cities ride the Dover mail coach 10 years before it was established. But Shakespeare and Dickens weren't writing in the age of the Internet, when every historical detail is scrutinized for chronological correctness, and when no "Gotcha!" remains unposted for long. Photographers using flashbulbs in 1919 in J. Edgar? Trans-Atlantic twin-engine jets in Argo? Really — it totally took me out of the movie!

In a climate of insistent authenticity, there's nothing harder to get right than a period's vocabulary. The past speaks a foreign language that even those who grew up with it can't recover. The producers of Mad Men take pride in fitting out their characters with the correct ties and timepieces. But as the Boston Globe's Ben Zimmer observed, they can't seem to keep anachronisms out of the scripts. Were we already saying "keep a low profile" in 1963? Actually, no — it didn't catch on until 1969, but who can remember these things?

Other writers don't even seem to make an effort to get the dialogue right. Spotting linguistic anachronisms in Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey is as easy as shooting grouse in a barrel. "I couldn't care less," Lord Grantham says. Thomas complains that "our lot always gets shafted." Cousin Matthew announces he has been on a steep learning curve, a phrase that would have gotten a blank reception even in the Sterling Cooper boardroom.

Those clangers are just too weirdly modern to ignore. It's not that Fellowes lacks an ear for the speech of the Edwardian age; it's that he doesn't seem to have much of an ear for the speech of this one. But I give a pass to anachronisms if they don't jump out at me. No, Mrs. Patmore probably wouldn't have said "when push comes to shove," and Lord Grantham should have waited a couple of decades before telling his chauffeur to step on it. But that isn't the problem with Downton's vision of the past. Even when the characters are speaking authentic period words, they aren't using them to express authentic period thoughts. The earl who frets over his duties as a job creator, the servants grappling with their own homophobia — those are comfortable modern reveries. Drop any of them into a drawing-room comedy by Shaw or Pinero, and they'd be as out of place as a flat-screen TV.

You can read the rest here, or listen here.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 27th 2013, 1:49 PM
Comment by: Donna B.
Frankly, Downton Abbey is fiction meant to entertain. It does entertain. And so. . .?
Thursday February 28th 2013, 1:23 PM
Comment by: mac
"Getting the Vocab Right in Historical Dramas: Does It Matter?"
the answer, as is the case with so many of life's little annoying questions is, somewhat.
twenty first century slang is intrusive in a period piece but so then is obscure language (long on the ash heap) kept in to insure "integrity".
Sunday March 3rd 2013, 2:20 PM
Comment by: valencia P.
i love this site it is a really good site for kids and adults

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