Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Mad Men": Capturing the Sound of the '60s

Just in time for Sunday's season premiere of "Mad Men," my latest "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine considers how authentically the show represents the speech of the 1960s. The creators of the AMC series, led by head honcho Matthew Weiner, are obsessive about getting the details of language right, just like all the other details of the show. But fans can be equally obsessive, on the lookout for the smallest linguistic anachronisms.

I got an inside peek at the careful construction of the dialogue from Weiner himself in an interview for the column. Weiner cares deeply about every nuance of the dialogue, wanting to make sure that each line is appropriate both for the character who speaks it and for the era in general. He and his fellow writers, supported by a punctilious research staff, try to leave no room for error. ("Mad Men" is not the type of show that allows the actors to go off-script and improvise, Weiner said.) When I asked Weiner if the show made allowances for well-placed anachronisms, perhaps for artistic license, he immediately discounted that possibility. "I never want it to be wrong," Weiner told me. "Any anachronisms that do occur are mistakes."

It's not surprising that a show made by perfectionists should attract an audience of perfectionists. Online fan forums and blogs question any whiff of inauthentic speech, just as they analyze details of wardrobe and set decoration. I admit to being one of the nitpickers: last season, I devoted a whole Word Routes column to a goof that the prop masters made in placing a 1987 compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary behind the desk of the character Lane Pryce. This was big enough news to get picked up by bloggers at Entertainment Weekly and New York Magazine, an indication of just how rare such anachronisms are on the show.

True to my nitpicky nature, I describe in the column six potentially anachronistic lines from the first three seasons of the show (set in 1960, 1962, and 1963, respectively). For easy reference, I put together a video with all six of these snippets of dialogue:

Here's a quick run-down of the six lines in question:

  • "The medium is the message." Weiner has already owned up to this error. As he told The New York Times Magazine after the show's first season, there's no way Joan could have quoted Marshall McLuhan in 1960. "Unless she was in his class in Canada, she wouldn't have known," Weiner said. "He was probably using it already, but it was not in print."
  • "I am so over you." It's the usage (and intonation) of so that sounds out of place. It appears to be what Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky calls GenX so: "so-called because it seems to have first appeared in the speech of Generation Xers (in the 80s, with the movie Heathers as a major boost for its spread)." The OED's earliest citation for this use of so as an intensifier comes from Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan: "God, you're so the opposite!"
  • "The window for this apology is closing." The OED suggests that this type of figurative window is an extension from the aeronautical term launch window. Though launch window dates to the mid-'60s, the first known use of window as in window of opportunity or vulnerability comes from a 1979 congressional hearing.
  • "Awwa!" Neal Whitman, a linguist and Visual Thesaurus contributor, brought this to our attention last year. Whitman pointed to Ben Yagoda's 2007 article for Slate on interjections identifying "Awwa!" with its cutesy intonation as "a 21st-century innovation."
  • "I'm in a very good place." John McWhorter took exception to this one in a column for The New Republic that criticized "Mad Men" more generally for having characters speak "the way that we like to think ordinary people spoke 50 years ago." Peggy's use of "a very good place" struck McWhorter as an idiom from the '90s, not the '60s.
  • "I know you have to be on the same page as him." The figure of speech "to be on the same page (as someone else)" is pretty clearly out of place when used by Roger in 1963. As with so and window, the OED dates this usage to 1979. A New York Times sports article from that year about the NFL says, "it takes a long time for everybody to get on the same page as far as the rules are concerned."

I should stress, however, that these are truly minor quibbles. The show does an admirable job overall in taking us back to an earlier linguistic and cultural world, and the dialogue hardly ever jolts us out of that world. For lovers of language as well as lovers of finely wrought period drama, that's a real treat.

Update (Aug. 6): Perhaps Joan could have said "the medium is the message" in 1960 after all. See the letter to the editor from Fred Shapiro, author of The Yale Book of Quotations.

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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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 22nd 2010, 10:25 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Ben, be proud of being a "nit-picker"; I am.
I routinely note misspellings in The New Yorker, WSJ, etc.
Thursday July 22nd 2010, 2:54 PM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
As always, I enjoy your column! I haven't seen the show (I don't spend much time in front of the TV), but I enjoyed the clip. I was in high school on the dates in question, and those phrases definitely sound out of place to me, too, especially the use of "so" as an intensifier. The cutesy intonation of "Awwa!" might have been a girl thing, even back in the sixties (maybe more of an "Oh" with the same intonation, followed by "poor baby" or something), but it sure would not have been heard in the setting shown in the clip.
Thursday July 22nd 2010, 3:38 PM
Comment by: Nancy K.
All of these expression are out of place. In the 60's we were still using "neato," "nifty," "tuff," and "copasetic." Even "cool" and "right on" had barely made their debut. I know a writer who used the word "pregnant" in his 1920's novel. This was a very graphic word at the time and considered very impolite, even in the 50's. Using "in a family way" would have been much more accurate. Of course, he also had two of his characters fly to LaGuardia on a commercial flight!

(That was SO whack. 'Sup?)
Monday February 13th 2012, 2:49 PM
Comment by: Pia L. (Albany, CA)
I heard "awwa" more as "aww," or "Hey, I was enjoying that and I'm bummed that you turned it off already."
Friday March 23rd 2012, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Tom F.
"I know you have to be on the same page as him."
Well, you tell me whether this is the same or similar enough usage.
I have the distinct memory on my first job out of college, 1971, of the boss gathering us together about a project we were starting. He said something very close to this. "Now I know it will take us some time before the whole choir is singing from the same page."

The sense of that is obvious, and I felt when I heard it then that it had been around for a while.

Now a personal surprise for me was when I was sitting and watching an old movie some time post-1960s. The date of the old B&W was around 1948. I was floored when I heard a waitress chatting to a client and she used the word "groovy" in precisely the way and intonation as was common in the 60s.

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