Mr. Carson, we need to talk – getting language wrong in period dramas

Boardwalk Empire, The Hour, Mr Selfridge, Life on Mars, Downton Abbey and Mad Men – period dramas remain a staple of television schedules. The people who make these shows are famous for paying an obsessive attention to detail. Matthew Weiner, the man behind Mad Men, has a reputation for being a perfectionist and control freak. He is even said to have made the actors dress in period underwear. However, there is one area where the realism of the shows is often compromised – the language.  Luckily there is a man who can point these gaffes out. Step forward Ben Schmidt. This history graduate and member of the Harvard Cultural Observatory has harnessed the power of modern computers to analyse the accuracy of the dialogues in some of these top-rated shows. Google Labs and scientists at Harvard University have launched a word-search database based originally on 5.2 million books, published between 1500 and 2008. The Google Ngram Viewer charts the yearly count of selected letter combinations words, or phrases. It has become an essential tool in the new discipline of culturomics, a form of computational lexicology that studies human behaviour and cultural trends through the quantitative analysis of digitized texts. Schmidt is able to look at every single phrase to see if it really appeared in print in the period in which the series or film is set. He effectively has an anachronism machine that will ruthlessly hunt down any dodgy words or expressions in the script. He calls them prochronisms. This is when a word or expression is used in a script before it was actually coined. I’m going to look at his analysis of Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and Lincoln.

Downton Abbey

I am a fan of the hit series, which is set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey. It depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their army of servants. I have seen all 25 episodes. The first series begins with news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and they are now up to the autumn of 1921. Language has changed a lot in the last 100 years. Here are some of the prochronisms that Schmidt found in the second series:

The First World War rears its ugly head and Downton Abbey is turned into a hospital. We hear that doctor Clarkson’s helpers aren’t trained in “specialist care”. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since the phrase was never used before 1925. In another episode the household is relieved that the butler Carson did not suffer a “heart attack”; but that phrase was about 50 times rarer in 1917

Thomas, who began as first footman and then became under-butler, embarks on a new money-making scheme in the post-war black market. If you consult the OED, it has some uses of the phrase “black market” that date back to the 18th century. But this does not mean that it was in general use. It was during World War II that this happened.

And finally one which I never would have guessed:

Robert, Earl of Grantham: You don’t think she’d be happier with a more traditional set up?

This would seem perfectly innocuous. If I were to suspect anything, it would be set up. But the Earl of Grantham’s comparison would not have been made at the time. Apparently to talk about tradition on a sliding scale is ahistorical; either something was traditional or it wasn’t.

Schmidt makes a comparison between the famous 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The novel is set 100 years before Downton and Schmidt found that between 60 and 67% of the words are more common in 1815 than in 1995; for Downton, only about 50% are more common. Andrew Davies, who wrote the script, did have one big advantage – he could steal lines from Austen.

Mad Men

Set in the 1960s world of advertising, Mad Men reflects the changing moods and social mores of 1960s America. It is a wonderful show; I have not missed one of its 65 episodes, but they do sometimes slip up linguistically. This is particularly true in its use of business language, where modern boardroom lingo regularly creeps in:

Take the verb “leverage” for example. In one episode Pete Campbell bitterly complained that Philip Morris had used Sterling-Cooper “to leverage a sweeter deal” from another agency. This business metaphor, which has its origins in the banking sector, is a product of Reagan’s America, not Kennedy’s.

Schmidt also points that idioms such as “feel good about”, “match made in heaven”, “tough act to follow”, “make eye contact”, and “fantasize about”; all are at least ten times more common today than in the 1960s. We do actually have something that we can compare Mad Men with – TV shows that were actually made in that decade. The Twilight Zone is one such show, and it doesn’t use “feel good about” once in over 100 episodes.

Some mistakes can easily go under the radar. The phrase “I need to” is a surprisingly modern phenomenon. Books, television shows, and movies from the 1960s use it at least ten times less often, and many never use it all. On the other hand, they would use “ought to” far more often than modern shows. According to Schmidt, movies and TV shows from 1960 to 1965 all use “ought to” more often than “need to”; every modern show set in the 1960s does the reverse. Getting frequency right is necessary if we want authenticity.

You may feel that scripts do not reflect real speech accurately. Then we have an even better source of English – the tape recordings of historical conversations of people speaking off the record. One famous source is the hours of conversations of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. I call this “grammar in the wild”, as opposed to the “grammar in captivity” that you get in textbooks. It makes fascinating reading and you can learn a lot about the way people spoke, admittedly from a particular social group. Schmidt checked hours and hours of secretly recorded White House conversations from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and found very different frequencies from those in the Mad Men episodes.


More recently Schmidt has been looking at Spielberg’s Lincoln. The award-winning playwright Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay. In an interview on NPR he made the rather bold claim that he had checked every word in his script that sounded out of place. As Lincoln is set a full century before Mad Men, Schmidt was pretty confident that he would be able to prove Kushner wrong.

Despite Kushner’s claims words like “peace talks” inevitably slip in. This construction may have been used to describe negotiations involving the IRA and the PLO, but it doesn’t appear to be very common before Vietnam.

The phrase “13th Amendment” is also out of place. People would have said the “constitutional amendment” or the “slavery amendment.” It had been 60 years since the 12th amendment, which set out the procedure for electing the President and Vice President, and it was not typical to refer to the amendment numerically.

In another scene a character says:

You refused to say that all humans are, well… human!”

But in 1865, referring to people as “humans” would have been slang. To invoke the notion of universal equality, they would have, mentioned “all men”. Similarly people wouldn’t have talked about “racial equality” and “race equality“, but “Negro equality“.


Do these mistakes really matter? Is this just pedantry? I often refer to that L. P. Hartley quote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. The language of the past is ultimately a foreign one. Scriptwriters and novelists may try to recreate the past, but they will never be able to “speak” like a true native. This is the difficulty of the enterprise. Even great novelists make mistakes. Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” was written in 1921, but set in the 1870s. She routinely used constructions like “marked trend” and “shoe-polish” that no one in the 1870s would have known. In fact, only 40% of its words are more common in the 1870s than the 1920s; worse than Downton Abbey.

We shouldn’t place accuracy above all other goals. There are far more substantial flaws. In the case of Lincoln, the film has been criticised for leaving out the role that slaves played in abolition. In a post I did about historical fiction I mentioned a historian who had complained about historical films. He said that they would claim that everything on the set was an exact reproduction of the particular period. But then the characters opened their mouths and would say things that no one of that period would have come out with. It is more important to capture the spirit of the time than the exact words. But if TV shows and films want to fetishise authenticity so much, why don’t they use all the tools available? They could employ someone to analyse the dialogues. So, Mr. Weiner, if you are reading this, I’m offering my services. I can assure you that my rates are pretty reasonable.


I came across the work of Mr. Schmidt in a wonderful Lexicon Valley podcast. If you love language, I do recommend this show. Schmidt has his own website.

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