Fresh Air (NPR), “Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?”

February 26, 2013

Geoff Nunberg, “Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?” (NPR Fresh Air, Feb. 26, 2013)

In a climate of insistent authenticity, there’s nothing harder to get right than a period’s vocabulary. The past speaks a foreign language that even those who grew up with it can’t recover. The producers of Mad Men take pride in fitting out their characters with the correct ties and timepieces. But as the Boston Globe‘s Ben Zimmer observed, they can’t seem to keep anachronisms out of the scripts. Were we already saying “keep a low profile” in 1963? Actually, no — it didn’t catch on until 1969, but who can remember these things?

Other writers don’t even seem to make an effort to get the dialogue right. Spotting linguistic anachronisms in Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey is as easy as shooting grouse in a barrel. “I couldn’t care less,” Lord Grantham says. Thomas complains that “our lot always gets shafted.” Cousin Matthew announces he has been on a steep learning curve, a phrase that would have gotten a blank reception even in the Sterling Cooper boardroom.

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