Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
"Downton Abbey": Tracking the Anachronisms
Are you hooked on "Downton Abbey"? The second season of the British period drama has been airing in the U.S. on PBS, and it's been an addictive treat for Anglophiles. But just how accurate is the language used on the show? Though it mostly remains true to its post-Edwardian setting, at times the talk is a bit anachronistic.
I have a column in the Boston Globe this Sunday addressing this very question, and I'll also be talking about it next week on NPR's "Morning Edition." In preparation, I put together a montage of clips from the second season (which begins in late 1916 and ends in early 1920), showcasing lines that seem a bit questionable. (Spoiler alert for American "Downton" fans: the final four clips feature scenes from Episodes 7 and 8, as they aired in the UK late last year. These episodes are running back to back on PBS on Sunday, Feb. 12, so you might want to avoid the last clips to remain spoiler-free, though no plot points are revealed.)
As I previously did for "Mad Men," I'd like to give a rundown of the lines I've compiled, assessing their accuracy for the time period.
- "I'm just sayin'." (Episode 1, late 1916) If this line from Ethel the maid sounds distinctly modern, that's because it is. As Mark Liberman recently explained on Language Log, the contemporary use of "I'm just saying" to defuse a potentially offensive remark only begins to appear in the latter half of the 20th century. It's possible to find examples of "I'm just saying" followed by a complement, as in "I'm just saying (something)" or "I'm just saying (that such-and-such is the case). But the defusing style appears on its own without a complement, and that developed much later than 1916.
- "Step on it." (Episode 3, mid-1917) It's possible to dig up examples of step on it from the 1910s as automotive slang for "go fast; step on the accelerator," but only in U.S. sources. Step on her and step on her tail were also possibilities at the time. But it's hard to believe that Lord Grantham would be up on the latest American slang (despite having an American wife!), well before this expression became common in the U.K.
- "I'll try to contact Captain Crawley." / "I don't know how to contact her." (Episode 4, early 1918) As Nancy Friedman explained in her Candlepower column last October, contact meaning "get in touch with, communicate" began as an Americanism, documented from 1927. And as she further discussed on her Fritinancy blog, this meaning of contact was a contentious usage issue among British language prescriptivists throughout the '30s and '40s. Even in the U.S., it raised hackles as late as the '60s.
- "You've been taking those logic pills again." (Episode 4, early 1918) This line from Matthew Crawely was singled out in article about anchronisms that appeared in The Telegraph last year when Season 2 first aired in the U.K. According to The Telegraph, the line "sounds distinctly modern." But as Oxford English Dictionary editor John Simpson told the newspaper, "logic pills" was rare then and now. Una Maguire, a spokeswoman for the production company behind "Downton Abbey," defended screenwriter Julian Fellowes: "This is merely Matthew using his wit and humor. It is not a common phrase now and we are not saying it was a common phrase then either. It isn't like using the phrase 'chill pill.' There is no reason why it would not have been used then. It is original writing." I'll give this one a pass and chalk it up to poetic license on the part of Fellowes.
- "What did you want me to do? Tell him to get knotted?" (Episode 4, early 1918) The British slang expression get knotted, roughly equivalent to "go to hell," is recorded back to 1963 by the OED, but I checked with slangologist extraordinaire Jonathon Green and he found it earlier than that, in 1944. Maguire told The Telegraph that get knotted was naval slang common in the 19th century, but Green says that this reflects popular but incorrect etymological speculation about the expression.
- "I get fed up seeing how our lot always get shafted." (Episode 5, mid-1918) The use of get shafted by the footman Thomas, like his get knotted, is a definite anachronism. Again, we can do a bit better than the OED's current earliest date of 1959 for shaft meaning "to treat unfairly." Green's Dictionary of Slang cites a 1951 Mickey Spillane novel, and I found an example from the same year in Roger H. Garrison's A Creative Approach to Writing: "Half these guys just come over from the Lockheed plant because the union told 'em some other unions was gettin' shafted on this deal." Still, that's 33 years too late, and on the wrong side of the Atlantic.
- "It wasn't settled by me that you'd come back here and take up with your floozy again." (Episode 5, mid-1918) This putdown of Mr. Bates's beloved Anna by his estranged wife Vera uses floozy, a term that was only beginning to creep into American slang in the 1910s. The OED cites a British writer, Horace Annesley Vachell, using it in 1927, but he had spent many years in the U.S. and had familiarized himself with Stateside expressions. The Google Ngram Viewer, based on the Google Books corpus, shows when floozy and its variants first became popular in American English and British English.
- "So everything in our garden is rosy again?" (Episode 5, mid-1918) This prematurely optimistic line, from Anna to Mr. Bates, also came up in the Telegraph article. The OED's John Simpson found "everything in the garden is rosy" in the 1929 edition of Electronic Engineering, but Una Maguire said that she believe it "came in about 1917 and then came more into use in the 1920s." I'm not sure what evidence that is based on, but like logic pills I find this one to be a minor and forgiveable offense.
- "When push comes to shove, I'd rather do it myself." (Episode 7, early 1919) This line from Mrs. Patmore, the cook, uses an expression, if/when push comes to shove, that would not have been known in England at the time. Until recently the OED's earliest citation for this was from 1958, but thanks to newly digitized databases of African-American newspapers, it has been found all the way back to 1898. But for the first half of the 20th century, it remained in African-American usage, not showing up in other U.S. sources, let alone British ones.
- "To me, Lady Mary is an uppity minx." (Episode 7, early 1919) This line from Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper, uses another term that would have only been known in the U.S. at the time: uppity. On the American side, examples can be found back to 1880 (from the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris), but it did not make its way to the U.K. until much later: again, the Google Ngram Viewer identifies when it came into use in American and British English. (Uppish was an available British equivalent for "presumptuously arrogant.")
- "How do I make you understand, I couldn't care less?" (Episode 8, mid-1919) Sybil's line to her father Lord Grantham is heartfelt but implausible. As I explained in a Word Routes column a few years ago, the earliest use of couldn't care less that I've been able to find is a 1944 column in the Chicago Tribune. The much-maligned inverted usage, could care less, can be found from 1955.
- "I've been thinking about the date for the rematch." (Episode 8, mid-1919) Matthew's line to his fiancee Lavinia uses the sporting term rematch which can be found in American newspapers back to 1903 but not in British newspapers until mid-century. The metaphorical use by Matthew to refer to (spoiler alert!) rescheduling a wedding would be even less likely to have been used at the time.