Monday, February 20, 2012

Dear Abbey

As you may be aware, PBS has a huge hit on its hands with the BBC costume drama Downton Abbey.  So far the series (which will continue next fall) has centered on the vicissitudes of the Crawley clan—the Earl of Grantham and his family—and their servants.  Owing to the British law of primogeniture, the Crawley daughters cannot inherit the title, the estate, or the fortune of the Earl’s American wife. 

The action takes place between 1912 and 1920—and a number of language mavens have taken pains to point out numerous linguistic anachronisms in the script. I am indebted to an astute customer of this blog for this account by Ben Yagoda in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes:

“The rumblings started last fall in an article in The Telegraph, complaining that Downton characters used such not-yet-coined words and expressions as get shafted, fed up, and boyfriend.

The peripatetic and formidable language commentator Ben Zimmer picked up the ball and added a few more offenders to the list, including I’m just sayin’ (to defuse a comment), step on it, floozy, contact  (as a verb), uppity, when push comes to shove, [and] I couldn’t care less.”

A third Ben—Schmidt—ran the entire script of Downton Abbey through Google’s Ngram data base, which could find no period references to fingerprint (as a verb), moral high ground, heaven’s name, or many other phrases.

But hold on just a cotton-pickin’ minute!

In the first place, some of the objectionable citations are not anachronisms at all. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary attests uppity in 1880 (the word appeared in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus in 1881). Another useful source, the Online Etymological Dictionary, assures that floozy (“a disreputable woman”) can be traced to 1890s slang; boyfriend (“a woman’s paramour”) was used in 1909;  contact was in use as a verb meaning “to put in a position next to” as early as 1834; and fingerprint was a verb by 1905.

But more important than quibbling over the earliest citations of these words, there is a fatal flaw in any argument that a word or phrase is anachronistic: there is no way to prove with certainty when a locution entered the language.  It might have been used for quite a while before it saw print--and even the print evidence is inconclusive as to a word’s earliest appearance, since that represents only publications that have survived the ravages of time and been found by a researcher.

Yagoda concedes that the whole question of anachronisms is really irrelevant in a dramatic context. He puts the issue to rest by pointing out:

“But does it really matter? That is, in 1591, Shakespeare had his character Richard III [1452-1485] say, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”… The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word [discontent] was coined in–what do you know?–1591 by a certain playwright from Stratford-on-Avon.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Downton Abbey, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has furnished this quick summary:

            The Earl of Grantham and his American wife
            Have a great big house and a happy life,
            But no male heir, and that’s a glitch,
            ‘Cause daughters can’t inherit (ain’t that a bitch!).
            Lady Mary (that’s daughter number one)
            Is set to marry the heir presumptive’s son,
            But he sets sail on the good ship Titanic,
            You can guess what happened—now there is panic!
            One night Lady Mary finds a Turk in her bed
            And somehow or other, he winds up dead.
            That’s all hushed up (but we’ll hear of it later),
            And a new heir, Matthew, arrives with his mater.
            He and Lady Mary don’t hit it off,
            So she takes up with a newspaper toff,
            While Matthew gets engaged to lovely Lavinia,
            Who’s pretty as a rose and sweet as a zinnia.
            Then Matthew’s paralyzed but cured by a miracle,
            If this weren’t so serious, you’d find it satirical.

            Meanwhile, in the quarters down below,
            The servants have their own imbroglio.
            The valet Bates (Grantham’s wartime aide)
            Has a really mean wife, but wants to marry a maid.
            The wife threatened Bates (and someone overheard her),
            And the upshot is Bates is charged with murder.
            Alas, he’s convicted and winds up in prison,
            And meanwhile, other complications have arisen:
            Lady’s maid O’Brien and footman Thomas
            Plot evil deeds that add to the dramas.
            Lady Sybil decides that she will go for
            Branson, the left-wing Irish chauffeur,
            The newspaper toff says he’ll tell all about the Turk
            If Lady Mary will not marry him—the jerk!
            Lots of folks get sick with Spanish flu,
            And one kicks the bucket—but I won’t say who.           
            And then, when everyone has been put through the     
            Maggie Smith drops in with another one-line zinger.
            There’s a good bit more that I can’t explain,
            So tune in next year and see Shirley MacLaine,
            Who’s sure to make each of us a fan again
            Of every Downton Abbey shenanigan.

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