Word Routes

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.

[Update: Welcome, NPR listeners, as well as readers of Slate, The Awl, the Wall St. Journal, Flavorwire, Nerve, and BBC America!]

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday February 10th 2012, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
This article reminds me of the days I collected American coinage and received both digital and print newsletters concerning the hobby. The experts as well as the non-experts were always so eager to pick apart someone else's collection or comments. Those people were the reason I gave up coin collecting.

Some of the most expensive art in existence contain intentional anachronisms, yet we look past those in order to enjoy the color and form the painter used.

Even The Bard slipped in a few anachronisms from time to time, but, regretfully, there are no video clips of his errors. To find them you'll have to read his works.

To be fair I must admit I did not finish this column. Perhaps there is something in the last half of it that makes it worth reading, but I did not slog through it because it is much too persnickety for my tastes.
Friday February 10th 2012, 11:15 PM
Comment by: Jerie C.
Is it really so impossible for academics and journalists to grasp that this is a work of FICTION not a lesson in Edwardian linguistics. Fiction is written for the purpose of identifying with human emotions and experiences and if a few - I emphasize a few - modern expressions make the story and the characters more accessible to the viewer or, in the case of a novel, the reader, then it is perfectly appropriate.
Saturday February 11th 2012, 1:46 AM
Comment by: John H. (Kankakee, IL)
"Suspension of disbelief" : a way for people to enjoy the "folly" of people who maybe "slept through a few English classes". We could also try thinking that "From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.". I enjoy learning about these anachronisms , but I don't think that they should be used to criticize a "jolly good show". I don't want to tell Ben Zimmer to "get knotted" , even though he maybe is "taking those logic pills". "I'm just sayin' " , Ben . "I get fed up seeing" "Downton Abbey" "get shafted" . Watching "Downton Abbey" isn't only for "floozies". I think that "everything in" "Downton Abbey" 's "garden is rosy". "When push comes to shove , I'd rather" be ignorantly blissful about watching "Downton Abbey". Ben isn't really "uppity" or "uppish". "I couldn't care less" about the anachronisms . Apologies to Ben , for my attempting to simulate a celebrity-"roasting" dinner party , and for appearing to ridicule his very interesting and useful research . Thank you . John
Saturday February 11th 2012, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Elizabeth O. (Montclair, NJ)
I didn't read it as a criticism of the show, just a look at the challenges of writing dialogue that's as authentic as the costumes and settings seem to be. (There may well be a column out there pointing out anachronistic furbelows in the gowns.) I think Ben's just sayin.'
Saturday February 11th 2012, 2:45 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mike and Jerie: Though this litany of gotchas is indeed nitpicky, rest assured that I can appreciate "Downton Abbey" without getting bogged down in linguistic minutiae. Please see my Boston Globe column, in which I discuss the anachronisms but also point out that focusing on them detracts from the pleasures of this highly entertaining show.
Saturday February 11th 2012, 7:05 PM
Comment by: John H. (Kankakee, IL)
Dear Ben Zimmer , Thank you for your article and comment here , and for your Boston Globe article . You say that focusing on anachronisms also detracts from the show's pleasures , but I think that light-hearted nitpicking can be fun and educational . Viewers could play a game : "Truth or Anachronism?". Teachers could give viewing and playing a game as a fun homework , or extra credit , assignment . I remember Maggie Smith in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" , a beautiful story with wonderful acting (and one of my favorite songs) . I also remember Gordon Jackson , a very dear and skilled actor . I also saw him in a PBS mini-series called "A Town Like Alice" . Thank you for bringing back some nice memories . John
Wednesday February 15th 2012, 1:27 PM
Comment by: Sophie K.
Oh My God!!!!!!!! My whole family loves Dowton Abbey!!! It is very entertaining and can be useful at some times. The only part I don't like about it is how stuck up and annoying some of the characters can be.
Sunday February 19th 2012, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Stuart the Maniac
When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go - Downton.

Wednesday February 22nd 2012, 12:38 AM
Comment by: Jon S. (Framingham, MA)
A word on visual style and production values. Exterior shots in November 1918 and on New Year's Day,
1920 are resplendent with greenery. Surprising that with the meticulous attention to historical detail on the interior shots and wardrobe the director asks us to imagine a late fall/winter scene. Perhaps the access to Highclere Castle was limited to the summer months.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

The meticulously designed show sometimes errs in its language.
A prop on "Mad Men" set off warning bells among dictionary lovers.
How "couldn't care less" got inverted to "could care less."