Led astray by the corpus of memory: a response to Hendrik Hertzberg

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The following is a guest post by Ammon Shea, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary's Reading Program and formerly a consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press.


Hendrik Hertzberg has made a series of claims recently on the New Yorker web site ("Nobody Said That Then!") about the ostensible inaccuracy of the language used in the television show Masters of Sex. His main contention is that many of the characters' utterances are improbable, asserting that certain words and phrases were not in use at the time that the show takes place (the mid-1950s). One of the problems with making bold and declarative statements about the origins of specific words is that these words have a nasty habit of first appearing much earlier or later than memory or intuition would attest.

After praising the writing on the show, Hertzberg spends the bulk of his essay on explaining why twelve words and phrases would not have been heard from the mouths of these characters, and wraps up by calling for increased accuracy (and a sort of production design) in the language used in such period dramas. It is unclear what reference sources Hertzberg uses to establish his claims of linguistic inaccuracy; one suspects that his contentions are based more on memory than anything else, as many of the words that he says did not exist at that time were in fact in use.

An over-reliance on personal recollection is an easy trap to fall into when tracking the history of a word, especially when it falls within the span of one’s own life. I recently wasted the better part of an afternoon trying to find an antedating to the earliest evidence currently found in the OED for the noun form of high-five. The first citation now is from 1980, and I was positive that I remembered the word being in common usage among children when I grew up in the 1970s. While it is possible that the word was in common parlance orally, but not written down until the 1980s, the fact remains that there is no evidence to be found (by me, at least) of this word for the time that I was quite certain it was in use.

Hertzberg objects to the show’s adverbial use of way, in the phrase "This is way more than you owe me." ("No. No way. No one used 'way' this way in 1953, not even Valley Girls"). However, the Oxford English Dictionary has evidence for this form of adverbial use (denoting "much" or "far") from 1941. And there is evidence of exactly the same phrase as is used in the show ("way more than"), found in an article from the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1951: "California’s billion dollar state budget proposal for 1951-52 is three and one-half times as great as the $281,733,781 actually spent by the state in 1939-40—and on a per capita basis it is way more than twice as much as for 1939-40."

Similarly, Hertzberg faults the inclusion of breaking news, writing "You might have heard this phrase in the newsroom of the New York World-Telegram, circa 1953, but it filtered down to the general public decades later…" Yet we can find common evidence of the phrase considerably earlier than that: it occurs in an article from Barron’s in 1940: "From here on in the strategy of our canniest political Quarterback, now calling signals for his third 'Touchdown,' will be to blanket the front pages with 'breaking news,' speak of the issues in a sermon-on-the-mount style, and try to ignore his opponent right up to Election Day if he can and dares."

Additionally, the author makes several claims that are not well-supported by the current evidentiary record of our language: he says that meritocracy was coined in 1958 (it appears in 1956), and, quoting William Safire, says that game-changer first appeared in 1982 (it has been in use since at least 1962).

I have a feeling that Hertzberg is falling prey to the same problem that I did when looking for evidence of high-five in the 1970s: we were both using our childhood memories as linguistic evidence (Hertzberg was roughly the same age in the mid-50s that I was in the mid-70s). In his defense, he is largely correct: some of the words he calls into question were not actually used at that time, and some of the others were not in widespread use. Still, it is a bit problematic to center your piece on the inaccuracy of someone else’s language use when the dates you provide to contradict them are not in order. Ben Schmidt has an impressive analysis of the currency and accuracy of the language in Masters of Sex (as well as some lovely graphs). Schmidt’s work relies on computer algorithms, rather than memory, and his conclusions are well-grounded.

Had Hertzberg chosen to make the essay about the unreliability of memory as corpus he would have avoided all these problems. But then he would have been stuck with a title along the lines of Words I Don’t Remember People Using When I Was Twelve, and who would want to read that?


Above is a guest post by Ammon Shea.



26 Comments

  1. Tom King said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

    Let's back off one another, gentlemen.

    Who's to say with certainty who said what when? I swear I heard about crossing the Rubicon long before Caesar's Gallic Wars. It may have been a local saying, as there was no bridge at the time.

    That said, having lived through the 40's and 50's in my youth, I am here to swear that the swear words we hear today were not in the common lexicon back then.

    I swear there was an F*** word carved into the telephone pole in my backyard and we all that it was the four letter word for flatus. Until some older kids told us what it meant. It meant nothing to us then. And it doesn't any longer.

  2. Craig said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    You're technically correct that citations can be found for some of these usages earlier than Hertzberg thinks, but it seems to me that the issue with language in period dramas is not merely that you should be able to prove that a word or phrase had already been invented by then, but that the language used should seem credible to the audience. To say "way more" or "game-changer" in a 1950s drama feels wrong; whether it is period-correct or not, it doesn't feel correct because these usages are associated with later periods when they became more common. The writers probably would have been better off with other words that better represented the way most people think people in the 1950s spoke.

    The word "paradigm" wasn't invented in the 1990s, but it certainly became a common cliche then to refer to almost any new product or method as "a new paradigm". Having a character from an earlier time refer to his new creation in that way would seem jarringly anachronistic despite being technically unobjectionable.

  3. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

    I think the worst one I heard recently was "in the moment" for Downton Abbey, taking place in the 20s. That to me is post 70s zen slang. It's really a question of verisimilitude, though, as Craig suggested.

  4. bulbul said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

    period-correct or not, it doesn't feel correct
    That's right, verisimilitude is important. That is why I prefer all the Romans in movies to have an English accent. (h/t Richard Jeni)

    One thing to consider here is the conservative nature of major publications – if you examine the archives of LL, you will find a number of instances of words that have been used for the first time in a newspaper or a magazine after having been in use for years. So an occurrence of "way" as an adverb in Los Angeles Sentinel in 1951 very likely means the word had been used in speech for quite some time.

  5. errorr said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    Adverbial way in 1940 during a congressional hearing. Didn't take the time to look at original as I would probably need a proquest or Hein subscription.

    Since it seems it is a committee meeting on migrant farm workers I wonder if it is also a California based usage. (As I picture Henry Fonda from Grapes of Wrath)

    http://books.google.com/books?id=0YAY2k77bE8C&q=%22is+way+more%22&dq=%22is+way+more%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=dMv_UuPMIePC0QGn2YHwAQ&ved=0CFAQ6AEwCA

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

    From Electronics 26(2) 1953:

    Despite all this, the present cost of the synthetic product is way more than the current rate for radio-grade Brazilian quartz.

    From U.S. Senate Hearings, Committee on Armed Services, 1952:

    It just happens that the majority of the Frenchmen have large homes, and if you want to have a place to live with your family you will probably have to take one of these large homes, which is way more than you need, [...]

    On the other hand:

  7. naddy said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

    I wish all these people complaining about anachronistic language in Mad Men, Masters of Sex, Downton Abbey, etc. would also insist that the next Robin Hood use Middle English and Norman French.

    The very worst are those that complain about anachronistic English in settings where no character would have spoken English in the first place, like those condemning the "fire!" command in Gladiator.

  8. errorr said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 4:11 pm

    While looking for early instances I came across a bunch of utterances where way it can be read ambiguously.

    So for a dilletante's lightly researched guess of how such a usage arose.

    The ambiguous utterance is "that way more". The words can sometimes be interpreted to either be "that way" + more or that + "way more". (Ex. "I've been feeling that way more often). Before the 20th century this type of ambiguous reading was difficult to find because it was usually accompanying either at like "at that way more…" in a bunch of Shakespeare, which was eventually replaced by "in that way more…" in other writings. Often a comma was used (that way, more) but this seemed to become less common.

    Eventually in the 20th century both the in and comma was more often gone and the ambiguous usage arose. I wonder if people began then to associate way with more rather than that. The usage perhaps changed. People now used it in that way more often. Or should I say people spoke that way more often.

  9. errorr said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

    About the previous post I would have liked to include links but that is difficult as I am writing from my phone.

  10. blahedo said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

    It does raise rather an interesting question for any situation where the characters would not be speaking essentially-modern English. If something takes place in 1920s France, but is filmed in 2014 in English, should the language style be 1920s English? I remember a few years ago watching a dubbed classic Japanese cartoon ("Lupin the Third") originally from the mid-70s, but the dubbing (and translation) work took place in the 00s, and they used absolutely-current slang and cultural references (I seem to recall one character suggesting selling something on eBay). They caught a lot of flak for it, but it was cool.

    And what about stuff that takes place in the pre-modern era entirely? I read the Iliad in a recent translation (by Stanley Lombardo) and *loved* it, but several of the other people reading it didn't like how it used modern language (quick random sample from flipping through the book: "he's done for", "they were all over the Trojans", "it's just that…", "you pansy archers"). But why not? It's not like I would understand the ancient Greek (and it's also not like the original wouldn't have used populist language too!).

  11. blahedo said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

    I'll add that I won't be shocked if some of my Iliad example phrases turn out to be older than I thought, per the original post here, but it's sort of beside the main point (which, as others have noted, has more to do with what we want/expect to hear than any objective reality).

  12. Craig said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    I wish all these people complaining about anachronistic language in Mad Men, Masters of Sex, Downton Abbey, etc. would also insist that the next Robin Hood use Middle English and Norman French.

    The very worst are those that complain about anachronistic English in settings where no character would have spoken English in the first place, like those condemning the "fire!" command in Gladiator.

    Complaining about the English of Gladiator is obviously silly, but I disagree that Robin Hood movies should be performed in Norman French or Middle English. I think everyone understands that people in ancient Rome would have spoken Latin, and people in 12th century England would have spoken Norman French or Old English, but since there is no native audience today for movies in those languages, we prefer to use modern English (often in a rather Shakespearean or King James Version style to make it sound "old"). This is fundamentally different from films set in times and places where modern English would have been used. English speakers today have no difficulty understanding the language of 20th century America or England (aside, perhaps, from certain regional accents), so there's no reason (other than ignorance and laziness) not to be period-correct in the language of shows like Mad Men or Downton Abbey.

    At the same time, the audience, for the most part, probably doesn't know or care whether language is period-correct or not. This is an issue which extends well beyond language into other areas of expertise. Do the technologies and methods of CSI really reflect what real-life crime scene investigators do, or the capabilities available to them? Probably not, but the viewers still enjoy the show. The writer Harlan Ellison once wrote an episode for some TV show back in the late '60s in which a character was required to mention the writer Albert Camus, whose name is properly pronounced "Kah-MOO." When it was filmed, the actor said "KAY-muss". This was definitely wrong, but from the viewpoint of the mainstream American TV viewing audience, it probably didn't matter because they had no idea who Camus was anyway. Effectively, whatever name was used was simply a placeholder for "European intellectual", so any French-sounding name would have done the job just as well, except for that minority of viewers who actually knew the names of any modern European writers.

  13. Mark Stephenson said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

    There was a 'Blackadder' episode in which another character talks in a stereotypically old-fashioned manner, only to be mercilessly mocked by Edmund, who uses modern English. He also threatens to kill someone if they say "Hey-Nonny-No" again.

  14. David Morris said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 1:57 am

    Two thoughts: firstly, a word or phrase can be in wide use in spoken English for some time before it is recorded in print, probably in newspapers, magazines and books in that order; secondly, the appearance of a word in print does not *necessarily* mean that it was in wide use before and at that time – it have been restricted to a small number of people or a small segment of the community.

  15. Glenn Bingham said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 2:20 am

    Only the King James version of the Bible is biblical; it restoreth my soul.

  16. Roger Lustig said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 5:00 am

    @Craig: "I think everyone understands that people in ancient Rome would have spoken Latin."

    Depends on the people, and on when they were speaking. Mel Gibson assumed as you do in his Passion of the Christ. Yet those Romans, in those settings in those days would have used Greek, just as French was spoken at European courts outside France.

  17. Jay Lake said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 8:18 am

    Hah. You think writing period drama is tough, try writing fantasy or science fiction with appropriate language. "Okay" is such a distinctive Americanism that it throws me out of a piece whenever I see it in a secondary world without the United States or some strong analog thereof. Likewise when I'm working on a story or book.

    The most egregious example I can think of off the top of my head is in the second LORD OF THE RINGS movie, when Legolas and Gimli are having a drinking contest in Meduseld during the celebration of the victory at Helm's Deep. Gimli finally passes out, and Legolas says, "Game over." Nowhere in all the corpus of attested Middle Earth literature will you find that phrase.

    This is something writers spend a lot of time talking and thinking about. Even writers with no background in linguistics.

  18. Dierk said,

    February 16, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    Anybody remember the good ole West – in the form of Deadwood? In that series people swear a lot, using a modern kind of swearing, that is, sexually connotated insulting. The writers of the show seem to have given that a lot of thought, explaining somewhere – I think it was in a Making-of or a DVD commentary – how they fought over it since at the time the series is set people would use religiously connotated swearing. the writers decided it would sound awfully ridiculous to today's viewers.

  19. Vanya said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 9:32 am

    I also grew up in the 1970s, and would also swear that "high-five" was a common expression back then – at least in metro DC where I grew up. Probably I am simply conflating it with the expression "gimme five", which is attested in that era.

  20. Brett said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    @Vanya: I don't think I remember hearing the phrase "high five" until some time in the early 1980s. However, before that, there was among the kids my age the following: a "gimme five," followed, after the first hand slap, by "up high."

  21. Terry Hunt said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

    @ Jay Lake
    Then again, the two individuals doubtless natively spoke Sindarin and Khuzdul respectively, but were conversing in their shared human language of Westron. Quite possibly an expression in Third Age Sindarin or Westron, whether in common usage or coined by Legolas at that moment, is best translated into the kinematic rendering's Fourth Age English as "Game over" :-) .

    Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    There is good-enough-for-suspension-of-disbelief versimilitude and then there is precise accuracy. Pick another sort of "authenticity" issue, like automobiles. If a movie is set in the 1950's, arrangements will be made to have "period" looking cars driving around in the background. If, for example, you have what is identifiably a '55 Studebaker in frame in a scene explicitly set in 1952, probably only a few obsessives will notice and complain, but at some uncertain point (as you get farther and farther away from precise accuracy, but probably well before a '64 Chrysler appears on screen) more and more members of the audience will find it more and more jarring. How far off is too far off probably depends on the time period of the setting – probably more current moviegoers can distinguish 50's-looking cars from 60's-looking cars than can distinguish 20's-looking cars from 30's-looking cars. Language use is probably about the same as cars, or period wardrobe, where you can be a few years off but not an entire stylistic period off.

    There may be other things where a greater degree of accuracy is necessary. I would predict that if you have a scene set in 1961 where the characters are listening to the radio and a song that was, in fact, not released until 1962 comes on there will be more people than you might imagine in the audience who will immediate know that's wrong and who cannot suspend disbelief for the remainder of the scene. The same might be true if the characters walked by a movie theater and the marquee said the theater was showing a film that wasn't released until a year after the putative date of the scene, or any dateable reference whatsoever involving professional sports. (I've heard it claimed that in the newspaper business you can sometimes get away with gross errors in front-page stories about the policies supported by the current president, but if you mix up who played second base with who played third base for some other city's baseball team 38 seasons ago in a passing reference of little relevance to the sports story in which it appeared, you will receive a flood of angry complaints from readers who immediately knew you got it wrong without even having to consult wikipedia first.)

  23. Boris said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 9:33 am

    The new Battlestar Galactica completely ceased to pretend that American culture references were inappropriate for a society whose contact with Earth was only at the climax of the series (I'll leave it at that. Spoilers). But they didn't carry over most of the original Battlestar Galactica's nomenclature because it would confuse people (things like units of time, measure, etc, not to mention idioms that rely on pop culture). And Frak was just a convenient swear word that would get past the sensors.

  24. Jay Lake said,

    February 20, 2014 @ 8:27 pm

    @Terry Hunt – I have the serious love for your comment.

  25. Anna Johnson said,

    February 21, 2014 @ 1:43 am

    In "The Dark Power of Fraternities" ( http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/the-dark-power-of-fraternities/357580/ ), about which bOING-bOING notes, "This has got to be the best lede of all time. And a great article, too," Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic observes:

    "An 1857 letter that a Sigma Phi member named Jenkins Holland sent to one of his fraternity brothers suggests the new system was already hitting full stride: 'I did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago.'"

    So sometimes things were in use much further back than you'd think.

  26. Tiffany St.Claire said,

    March 25, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    I certainly remember a hand play in which one said: "Gimmie five, up high, down low, too slow." One would hold one's hand out flat, hold it up high, and then for the "down low" one would whisk it out of the way before proclaiming "too slow." I have always thought that to be the origin of the term "high five" in the 1980s, but I could be wrong.

    I agree with the points that Craig has made here; particularly his point that it's not a matter of when a word or phrase was "invented" but rather when it was in popular use. It would be more aesthetically pleasing and less jarring to have the language avoid newer uses and phrases.

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