"Downton Abbey" anachronisms: beyond nitpickery

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I've been taking advantage of the rabid interest in "Downton Abbey" lately to report on some verbal anachronisms that have cropped up in the show's second season (originally broadcast on ITV in the UK late last year and now wrapping on PBS in the US). Over the past few days I've written about it in columns for The Boston Globe and the Visual Thesaurus, and I was interviewed on the topic for NPR Morning Edition earlier today. I also put together a video compilation of questionable lines from the show, and it's been making the rounds in culture-y corners of the blogosphere:

(The first line, "I'm just sayin'," was discussed by Mark Liberman here. See my Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus for a full breakdown of all of the lines.)

There seems to be a real appetite for anachronism-spotting, given how widely the video has circulated since I posted it (along with the NPR website, it's been featured on Slate, The Awl, Lapham's Quarterly, WSJ Ideas Market, Flavorwire, Nerve, Metro, and BBC America). And in the UK, reports of too-modern slang in the second season of "Downton" made national news last year (in The Telegraph, Daily Mail, and elsewhere). But is this all much ado about nothing — a tempest in a vintage teapot? Are there any broader linguistic questions at stake here beyond the nitpicking?

I'm happy to report that Benjamin Schmidt — history grad student at Princeton, fellow at Harvard's Cultural Observatory, and co-creator of the Bookworm interface for Google Ngrams — has taken the ball and run with it. In a post on his Sapping Attention blog, he guides us through an experiment in historical collocations:

I found some copies of the Downton Abbey scripts online, and fed every single two-word phrase through the Google Ngram database to see how characteristic of the English Language, c. 1917, Downton Abbey really is.

His results chime with my more anecdotal inquiry, but he also raises some deeper questions about the (re)invention of tradition. It's exciting to see what can be done along these lines, in terms of judging linguistic verisimilitude of period-specific drama. This is something I've been looking forward to ever since I heard J.-B. Michel and Erez Liberman Aiden give a preview of their blockbuster "culturomics" paper in late 2010. I had mentioned to them that the writers and researchers for the '60's-era TV show "Mad Men" used Google Books, among other sources, to test the accuracy of words and phrases in their dialogue. The culturomicists were taken by this idea, imagining how Google Ngrams could be applied to the creation of historical fiction on the page and screen. And now we can begin to see the applications more clearly. It leads me to wonder: just as sabermetrics has created a place for statisticians in baseball, could we be seeing the birth of new job prospects for digital humanities scholars in the entertainment industry?

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49 Comments »

  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    It seems to be well established by now that TV shows taking place in, say, the Tudor era use modern (and sometimes absurdly anachronistic) English. Even in shows based on Jane Austen or the Brontës the language is often modernized. What, then, is the anachronism cutoff date?

  2. Markonsea said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 5:30 pm

    You can be too enthusiastic about it, though: "floozy" is attested (in print) in 1911 according to the OED; and the phrase "Everything in the garden's lovely" was popularised via a song of that name made famous by Marie Lloyd, which I also imagine will antedate the action in the series.

    [(bgz) I encourage all readers, before posting here, to look at my analysis of these lines in the Word Routes column linked above. There you'll find discussion of how "floozy," like several other items compiled in the video, was strictly American slang at the time. I even provide links to a Google Ngrams comparison of American English to British English. As for the "garden" line, perhaps it matters that it's "rosy" and not "lovely," though this isn't one of the more egregious examples.]

  3. Bobbie said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

    During Episode 7 or 8 (they ran back to back) , Anna says to Mrs. Hughes that she'll "be back in a jiffy." Was that being used in 1919?

    [(bgz) "In a jiffy" is fine -- goes back to the late 18th century.]

  4. The Ridger said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

    But if they used genuine slang of the time, it would be either laughable or opaque (in most cases). They're just translating to make it understandable. We don't demand that Spartacus's actors speak Latin (or Greek).

  5. J. Goard said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

    Harder to measure, but almost certainly part of the picture, is the avoidance of long-standing colloquial expressions that the younger generation always seems to think it invented. Any evidence that they avoid pseudo-anachronisms in favor of lower frequency but quainter constructions?

  6. Martin J Ball said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

    We don't expect them to speak in 1917-era English accents, so if the speech is anachronistic, should it matter that the language is too…?

  7. Leonardo Boiko said,

    February 13, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

    > We don't demand that Spartacus's actors speak Latin (or Greek).

    Speak for yourself :) Greeks or Romans speaking English is something that's hugely unnerving for me. I won't say I'd walk out of a movie just for that, but I did stop playing certain videogames for this very reason (Spartan: Total Warrior, I’m looking at you).

    As a counter-example, here's a Brazilian period movie that attempted to use 16th-century Portuguese. Of course it needs subtitles for modern speakers, which is totally awesome! I don't think the actors’ diction would convince actual philologists, but I welcome any serious attempts at creative use of reconstructions. Desmundo had consulting by linguist Helder Ferreira for the text; he took care to try to reproduce a variety of sociolects and Iberian influences, and recorded CDs to help actors with the phonetics.

  8. Jangari said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    Makes me wonder how accurate the slang used in Deadwood was. That to me gave the impression of a thoroughly well considered script.

    The question of historical accuracy of accents is one thing, it's possibly just too difficult to recreate the languages and accents of a particular place/time (although it's still thoroughly annoying when rhoticity is used to distinguish the different strata in medieval England – Braveheart, for instance), but a) the early 20th century is not very remote, and b) we're talking about turn of phrase, not accent; it's easy to verify using, as Ben pointed out, Ngrams.

  9. Alen Mathewson said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 8:32 am

    I'm sure that the picture and caption that accompanies your piece in the Boston Globe was not of your doing so I shall happily indulge in a bit of nitpicking! The caption states that "British actress Maggie Smith plays Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham." To be formally correct it should say either "British actress Maggie Smith plays Violet, Countess of Grantham" (no Dowager) or "British actress Maggie Smith plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham" (no Violet). And if we are being very strict, I seem to recall that Countesses, dowager or otherwise, are properly Right honourable – so Maggie Smith plays Violet, the Right honourable the Countess of Grantham. Pip! Pip!!

  10. Gene Callahan said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 10:46 am

    @Leonard: "Greeks or Romans speaking English is something that's hugely unnerving for me."

    Leonard reports that his own shadow also makes him jumpy.

    Note: The Persians in ancient Greek plays spoke Greek. The Trojans in Virgil spoke Latin. The Italians and Danes in Shakespeare spoke English.

    So why is it suddenly "hugely unnerving" that this practice continues?

  11. evilado said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    @Jangari

    Deadwood's language was deliberately anachronistic. To quote Language Log's own Geoffrey Nunberg,

    If you have your characters use historically accurate swear words, they're apt to sound no more offensive than your grandmother in a mild snit. The only way to convey the potency of their oaths is to have them use modern swear-words, even if they're anachronistic.

    The words those "Deadwood" characters would actually have used had religious overtones rather than sexual or scatalogical ones.

    But if you put words like "goldarn" into the mouths of the characters on "Deadwood," they'd all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam.

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    I am curious: has anyone checked with Julian Fellowes whether he had ever intended for his characters to use period speech?

  13. John said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    Coby got it right at the start.

    We have no problem with anachronism of a kind, but there seems to be a combination of kind, degree and time-elapsed that crosses a line.

    For example, we expect figures in some historical fiction, like Troy, to speak in some kind of standard modern language. When they don't, because they get too slangy, it bothers us.

  14. ENKI-][ said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    The historical accuracy of accents brings up a whole new can of worms: how do we know to what degree accents from 1917 such as were recorded were modified to suit the recording technology (as actors in older hollywood films spoke in an unnatural staccato because it comes through better, and as the manner of speaking of professional radio announcers is not representative of the manner of speaking of anyone else). But, if we're on that track we can throw away the n-gram analysis on account of people not writing the way they speak! (This is probably less of an issue with 1917 than it would be with 1817, while 1717 would be even better for those fixated on accents on account of phonetic spelling)

  15. Brett said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    When I was in middle school (in the late 1980s), we watched a film in English class that was supposed to provide some information about narrative writing. I don't remember any of it, except for a section on slang. The film showed two examples of teenagers having conversations, the first using typical 1920s slang and the second 1950s. The '50s-style dialogue sounded awkward, and the '20s-style scene was simply absurd. While these were both probably atypically slangy conversations, it made the point very effectively that slang can become dated (and ridiculous sounding) after the passage of several decades.

    The follow-up was an improved version of the 1950s scene with the worst excesses of period dialogue removed, so that it sounded like a reasonable casual conversation to 1980s preteens. The farther one goes back, obviously the more difficult it is to maintain some feel of the period dialogue without it sounding silly and/or unintelligible.

  16. Oskar said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    Here's the one anachronism I noticed: in the first season, a Turkish visists Downton and suggests to Lady Mary that she should visit "Istanbul". This takes place before WWI, several years before the Ottoman empire fell to the forces of Atatürk, who then founded the modern Repulic of Turkey and changed the name of the city of Constantinople to Istanbul.

    It's true that Istanbul is an old Turkish word and informally referred to the city, but would Lady Mary really know that? It seems to me highly unlikely that she would have any idea what "Istanbul" referred to, and only knowing the city as Constantinople.

  17. Oskar said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    (that should be "a Turkish gentleman", in the first sentence of my last post. I accidentally a word)

  18. The suffocated said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

    Harry Higgott Thomas, The Garden at Home, Cassell and Co. Ltd (a British publisher), 1912, p.8:

    "Viewed from the warm fireside, the future of the garden is rosy, the seeds sprout without exception, grow green and come to blossom."

    Sounds like the author was talking about a rosy prospect, but not a rose garden (although the book itself is about gardening).

  19. Brett said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

    I don't know how well known "Instanbul" was in this time period. However, there is a famous double acrostic by Queen Victoria, in which one of the clues is: "The Turkish name of Constantinople," for which the answer was supposed to be: "Stamboul." Trying to solve this puzzle, I was completely baffled, since "Instanbul" was the only form I knew. However, "Stamboul" seems to have been reasonably common in Britain at one time; it's used in Murder on the Orient Express, for example

  20. Lazar said,

    February 14, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    One anachronism that I've heard recently in a period piece: Boardwalk Empire's semi-fictionalized Arnold Rothstein, in a second season episode set in 1921, using "going forward" in its oft-derided sense of "from now on". All the commentary that I've read on that expression seems to take the view that it's a very recent piece of corporate-speak.

  21. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 15, 2012 @ 1:48 am

    Georgette Heyer used slang to give her historical novels, often known as "Regencies" in the U.S., a period flavor. There's a list of terms here:

    http://www.georgette-heyer.com/slang.html

    I don't always agree with the definitions at this site, but whoever did the list worked through more than one book to come up with the expressions. From what I've read about Heyer, she had a reputation for doing careful research. That said, I don't know if her slang is really typical of the times and places where her novels were set.

    A lot of Regency authors imitate her style, and I don't think they always research their own slang. I don't know the Regency period well enough to pick up on anomalies in Heyer books.

    There are other contemporary, mass market novels set in the first half of the 1800s that do have anomalies. The ones I notice involve characters discussing dilemmas using a contemporary psychological approach. I don't have any documented dialogue, but it would be along the lines of a character telling another to "examine his motivation" or some similar psychobabble.

    There are a lot of traps in period novels and drama. Writers are always putting words in characters' mouths that reflect the era of the writer, not the era the work is set in. I think it is interesting to figure out if the writer has made a "mistake."

    But deciding whether an anomaly ruins the novel or drama may just be a different form of peevery — as someone I know once said, "It's fiction!" She went on to point out that fiction is made up — it doesn't have to be historically accurate.

  22. Dan Hemmens said,

    February 15, 2012 @ 7:41 am

    It strikes me that an interesting follow-up to this analysis of the "anachronistic" lines in Downton Abbey would be a similar analysis of the lines that the internet at large *hasn't* labeled anachronistic. I rather assume that *none* of the dialogue in the show is particularly characteristic of the English Language circa 1916.

    To put it another way, I suspect that a lot of the "anachronistic" lines are things people are picking up on by accident, I sincerely doubt that anybody working for the Telegraph was sitting there thinking "gosh, don't they realize the phrase 'when push comes to shove' was a primarily African-American usage until circa 1950". Rather, I suspect that they were thinking "gosh, that doesn't sound very past-ey." I suspect there would have been the same complaint if the line had come from an African-American in the 1890s (much as I suspect there would have been the same complaints if Lady Grantham had been the one saying "step on it").

  23. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 15, 2012 @ 9:28 am

    I think the use of 'Stamboul' in Orient Express is supposed to be French, reflecting the fact that the Wagon Lit company is French. There is, if I remember rightly, a Stamboul-Calais coach and an Athènes-Paris coach. In the actual narrative it's 'Istanbul'.

  24. Mar Rojo said,

    February 15, 2012 @ 10:46 am

    I'm with The Ridger on this. I don't expect historically accurate usage in TV dramas that are really out to entertain us and want to maintain their ratings.

  25. meesher said,

    February 15, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    @Alen Mathewson,
    British Dame, actress Sir Margaret Smith, DBE, BAEA, plays Grantham, Dowager Violet, the most right honourable of Countess, surely?
    As a republican I'd call her Violet Grantham myself.

  26. Leonardo Boiko said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 4:29 am

    @Gene: Because hiring a few foreign voice actors would cost a game studio a fraction of what they typically spend in 3d visual effects, and would increase immersion tremendously? Because mainstream Hollywood is terribly ethnocentric, often changing, say, an Asian or Indian protagonist for a Caucasian, or remaking perfectly good foreign films for no other reason than they being “foreign”, and an artificially-sustained monolingualism is part of the problem? Because I wish for more linguistic diversity, and for more diversity in general? Because in the 21th century, unlike in ancient theatre, we have subtitles? Because dead languages are cool?

    I'm sorry, but I didn't quite understand the jeering about shadows.

  27. Marie Brennan said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 6:34 am

    I have to say, this warms the cockles of my heart. Because while I haven't tried to write in full-on period voice for my historical novels — my editor would have shot me if the first one had been in true Elizabethan idiom, assuming I could even pull it off — I made a serious effort to scrub out anachronistic words and usages thereof.

    It's the sort of thing that's invisible to the reader, of course; nobody can tell that I avoided referring to a sixteenth-century character as "paranoid," or caught and changed a place where I'd called someone a "thug." (You'll only catch the ones I overlooked, of course. Or, in some cases, think I got it wrong, when in fact a modern-sounding usage is way older than people assume.) But I did try, and celebrated when the series got up to the late Victorian period and I could finally use "fucking" as an intensifier. :-)

    So it makes me absurdly happy to see that some people do pay attention to these things. My effort is not wasted!

  28. Dan Hemmens said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    But I did try, and celebrated when the series got up to the late Victorian period and I could finally use "fucking" as an intensifier. :-)

    I wouldn't celebrate too much. I suspect the use of "fucking" as an intensifier would be called out as an anachronism in anything set before about 1980 – an awful lot of the complaints about Downton have very little to do with actual historical accuracy and everything to do with their own preconceptions about "the past".

    People don't really spot anachronisms, they spot things at random, and it happens that most of them are anachronistic, because most of the language in any work of period fiction is likely to be anachronistic (because as you observe, you aren't going to actually write in an Elizabethan idiom).

  29. etv13 said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    @meesher: Violet Grantham, not Violet Crawley? Isn't Violet Grantham how she's properly supposed to sign herself in correspondence, according to the etiquette of these things (her first name plus her husband's title)?

  30. Marie Brennan said,

    February 16, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

    Dan — and my use of "bitch" as a pejorative in the Elizabethan-era book was probably read the same way. But that applies to more than just my word choice; there are other historically accurate details that probably run counter to people's assumptions.

    But I chose which standard to hold myself to, and that meant several novels in which my available profanity was pretty weak-sounding to the modern ear — hence the celebration. :-) I'm mainly glad to be reassured that it was worth the effort of avoiding "paranoid" and "thug" and all the rest, because there are readers who would have been kicked out of the story by it.

  31. Ms Darcy said,

    February 18, 2012 @ 8:17 am

    Finding anachronisms in Downton is fun, but it’s fun only because it is such a good production, and in general it feels true to the period, as Ben Zimmer points out in his excellent column. If Downton weren’t so wonderfully detailed and acted, with so many memorable lines, no one would bother with this level of “nitpickery.” Ms Brennan is right to feel “absurdly happy” at the prospect of her readers offering similar critiques, and Mr. Zimmer’s choice of anachronistic expressions is far from being random. I think they are a sample of relatively few missteps in the series. Indeed, some of his examples may turn out to be quite “OK” after all. Before the age of instantly available news and commentary, many expressions came into use long before they made it into print. I would defend Mrs Hughes’s wonderful epithet for Lady Mary: “Uppity minx.” After all, might not this entirely literate housekeeper have read or heard tell of the Uncle Remus stories, which were published more than 30 years earlier? I would, though, quibble with Mr. Zimmer’s use of the word “disinterest” in describing Sybil’s attitude to her life at the Abbey. Sybil is the very opposite of a disinterested person.

  32. vanya said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    " I suspect the use of "fucking" as an intensifier would be called out as an anachronism in anything set before about 1980"

    More like 1960, depending on the social context of the speech. It was certainly wide spread in the 1970s. I read somewhere that the use of "fucking" as an intensifier caught on among men during World War I, and World War II accelerated the trend to the broader population. Wish I remember where I heard this, it was probably a discussion of Deadwood.

  33. LDavidH said,

    February 19, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    Sorry to be joining the Istanbul discussion a bit late, but I always thought Istanbul was a "corruption" of Constantinopolis – not a different name but a development, the same way that Latin Vienna became Wien, or Leicester became "Lester" (if only in spoken English). Can somebody shed some light on this?

  34. PaulB said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 6:49 am

    Online sources tell us that the name came from the local Greek "εἰς τὴν πόλιν" ("into the city"). Perhaps the variant "Stamboul" has been influenced by the modern Greek "στην πόλη".

  35. xyzzyva said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

    Since both Boardwalk Empire and swearing have been brought up:

    There's an episode of the early-1920s-set show where Chalky White (boss of black community) uses the word motherfucker in front of Nucky Thompson (boss of white community), who is suitably perplexed about its meaning.
    Showing their research, I'd say.

  36. LDavidH said,

    February 20, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

    @PaulB: That sounds rather far-fetched to me – a steady wearing down of Constantinopolis to Istanbul seems much more plausible. Especially as we know that the name Alexander wore down to Skander or – in Albanian – Skender. Your explanation sounds more like folk etymology – but then again, I only have my instinct, no hard facts either way. Are your sources scientifically reliable?

  37. PaulB said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 4:45 am

    This paper considers derivations from 'Islambul' and (in a lengthy German quotation) the one you suggest, and concludes very persuasively that the Greek etymology is correct.

  38. LDavidH said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

    Indeed. I'm surprised, especially to learn that even the Greek-speakers of the city had ceased calling it Constantinopolis. I guess I can't argue with such erudition, even if it goes against my instincts… but I wouldn't be surprised if the change was facilitated by the similarity to the name Constantinopolis!

  39. Kim said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

    What about Bates getting read his "Miranda rights" when he was taken away in handcuffs? Isn't that #1 American and #2 much later than the late 1910 era?

  40. Enid Weichselbaum said,

    February 22, 2012 @ 1:05 am

    Anachronistic language aside, did we not notice the modern green corded twinkle lights on the Christmas tree? That is simply lazy.

  41. Chris Hyland said,

    November 5, 2012 @ 5:27 am

    "Big girl's blouse" in last night's episode? Apart from the formal Bates using such informal language, according to a Google search it didn't come into common use intil the 1960s.

  42. Andrew Spence said,

    December 5, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    I am afraid it sounds false time and time again. I distinctly heard "I am out of here". Dressing people up in period costume and getting them to spew out contemporary English is akin to mummery. It is not a question of whether it is well or badly done but why it is done at all.

    It seems any fool can get a scriptwriter's job in today's Britain.

  43. Glen Cochrane said,

    January 20, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    One that I noticed was in season one, while discussing a miscarriage, Thomas remarks that "at this stage it was no bigger than a hamster"

    Hamsters were not used as Lab animals until the 1930s and were not popular pets until the 1940s and 50s. Before that they were a wild middle eastern and Asian rodent. It would have been a very obscure reference for an English footman.

  44. Margaret L. Carter said,

    January 21, 2013 @ 7:09 pm

    I haven't watched the episode of Bates's arrest yet, but — really? Miranda rights? That's dreadful.

  45. Claire Keaveney said,

    February 1, 2013 @ 11:23 am

    Just binge-watched Season 3 of Downton Abbey via iTunes (couldn't wait), and there are some real howlers in the last episodes. At this point, the anachronisms have got to be intentional. Part of Julian Fellowes master plan for world media domination?

  46. J Oliver said,

    February 4, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    In Season Three, episode 5, Matthew Crawley tells the ex-chauffeur that he (Matthew) is on a 'steep learning curve'. That sounds to me like a howling anachronism.

  47. cameo said,

    February 7, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

    Johnny-come-lately here. Catching up on Season 2 and up to date on 3. In the first two episodes of Season 2, I hard two phrases that gave me pause. One was Mrs Bates's snide retort "As if." Just those two words… I don't remember people using "as if" on its own until, I dunno, ten years ago? Also: "perq" — short for perquisite. Either Lord or Lady Grantham exclaims that with all the money they've donated to the hospital, they deserve some "perqs" (reference to getting the newly returned Thomas a position there.) Not sure that would actually be a perq. But meaning aside, would the word, i.e., abbreviation, have been used at that time?

  48. Johanna said,

    October 11, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

    Regarding uppity minx, apart from whether it's an anachronistic phrase, how can Lady Mary be uppity? If you're already nobility, where's up?

  49. Keith Charles Dovoric said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 7:02 am

    I can see how it's fun to challenge oneself by spotting anachronisms, as a sort of intellectual exercise. Essentially, though, insofar as drawing some kind of an accuracy-line goes, what it should boil down to is whether the dialogue is consistent (i.e. typical of the characters), utilitarian (i.e. functional in terms of moving forward the plot), and, of course, dramatically effective (i.e. "moving."). All else is just essaying in semantics.

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