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What do you know about Downton Abbey language?

The language of Downton Abbey

Many of us loved the dramas and emotional rollercoaster of Downton Abbey, adoring Violet Crawley’s pithy insults and Lady Mary’s romantic mishaps equally. But how should linguistics feel about it? What of the supposed anachronisms of language being uttered by a number of the characters?

A few seemingly modern phrases that have been singled out in the press, for example in this article, are get knotted – first recorded in the OED in 1963, everything rosy in the garden (1929), and ‘logic pill’, which is quite an unusual phrase, and not found in the early 20th century. So these examples are indeed recorded in written English only after the period in which the programme is set: before, during, and shortly after the First World War.

Yet despite this sprinkling of anachronisms, there are many more examples of words or phrases that may sound equally modern and out of place, but which turn out to have been perfectly well-established at the time the series is set.

Flirting and dawdling minxes?

Some viewers gasped to hear Mrs Hughes refer to Lady Mary Crawley as an ‘uppity minx’, thinking that this belongs in TOWIE instead. However, uppity has been around since 1880, and minx even longer than that – since 1576, to be precise. And it would be difficult to argue that someone who knows both words might not be tempted to put them together when strongly moved – even during the War.

Take a shine to him and plenty more fish in the sea – both uttered by O’Brien, the Countess’s maid – may also sound fairly modern to some. But both comfortably predate the show, with records going back to 1839 and 1859 respectively. Dawdling and flirting – accusations levelled by the sunny-dispositioned cook, Mrs Patmore, at the kitchen maid – are even older: the verb dawdle is first attested in a1656 and flirting, as a noun, in 1710 (in the Tatler: “Miss with all her Flirting and Ogling”).

It’s not just the downstairs lot who use language that might raise eyebrows. When Sir Richard Carlisle doesn’t want Lady Mary to think he’s checking up on her the phrase sounds modern – but it would have been around for a couple of decades (first recorded in 1889). And Matthew Crawley’s light-hearted use of sucking up to is documented first in 1860.

Setting the scene: electricity, the telephone, gramophones, and slang

The period portrayed sees some exciting changes and events: electricity and telephones are still new and faintly frightening inventions, and gramophones and swivel chairs are embraced by the youngsters with greater ease than by the older generations. Similarly, some of the phrases used in the programme appear to have been chosen to reflect the latest contemporary vocabulary, and it’s often the younger Crawleys and the ‘downstairs’ contingent who use these:

like a shot– said by Lady Edith; the first OED record of the phrase in this sense of ‘without hesitation’ is 1885, less than 20 years old at the opening of the first series

motor – said by Murray, the lawyer, and first recorded in the OED as a heading in Autocar, 1899. (‘Car’, another abbreviation of motorcar, is also used by some characters, and is also historically accurate, as the word has been around since 1896).

when push comes to shove – Mrs Patmore, the cook: first recorded in that form in 1898 (but mainly in the US until 1958, so arguably an anachronism). An even earlier form, ‘when pinch comes to shove’ is also recorded.

toe the line – said by Charlie, Carson’s former double act partner, first recorded in 1895

pipe down – Lady Mary’s instruction to Branson – can be traced to an 1876 OED citation.

Repeat after me: it’s (nearly always) older than you think

As a lexicographer, I’m interested in the fact that words and phrases have often been around for longer than you might expect. It adds fuel to my linguistic fire and allows me to utter my oft-quoted mantra: it’s older than you think. I have lost count of the number of words or phrases that I have researched, which I come to with a preconceived notion of when (roughly) it might have entered the language, only to be given a swift reality check (a term which you may be surprised to learn dates back to 1935).

Take weapon of mass destruction. When I began to research this term – one which has a wealth of early 21st century evidence – I suspected that it would probably go back a little further, perhaps to the early 1990s and the time of the Gulf War. There was evidence from then, but my work took me back past that, through various conflicts, all the way back to 1937, and the Christmas appeal of  the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Times newspaper. Who is to say that in the future we might not find even earlier examples, when resources not currently available emerge? The concept certainly existed, but whether the name did remains to be seen.

That’s entertainment…

Whether any of this matters to you or not depends on why you watch such programmes.  It could be argued that Downton Abbey is not really in the business of providing a painstakingly authentic picture of life at the time – it is a light entertainment programme after all, a point made at the end of the article mentioned earlier. This includes the language used as well as the action depicted. So long as characters aren’t listening to Tinie Tempah on their MP3 players, or watching Liverpool playing Milan in the European Cup Final, the odd phrase here and there that is a few years out needn’t detract from anyone’s enjoyment. The series provides a flavour of what life was like in the early 20th century – and it’s not as if it is an adaptation of something that was written at the time, and which has been changed. And, as pointed out, for every example which may be a little before its time, there are plenty which are on the money.

Pause, rewind, replay: the devil’s in the detail

We are now able to watch films and television programmes with a much more critical eye, having at our disposal the technology to replay scenes in slow motion, not to mention access a mountain of information and check facts very quickly. Things which previously fell in to the category of ‘blink and you miss it’ can now be examined more minutely and in greater detail, and newly written period dramas probably run a greater risk than most when under such close scrutiny. There have always been those quick to point out that that a particular type of door handle could not have been used in a particular era as it came into production ten years later, or that certain flowers wouldn’t be blooming in a garden in a particular month. It all depends on how far you wish verisimilitude or dramatic licence to go and whether your enjoyment is genuinely spoiled by the introduction of a rogue phrase or two.

The other side of the coin

Of course, programmes meant to be up to date can suffer from the opposite problem, and be accused of being behind the times and of not giving a realistic portrayal of how people speak today. With language evolving at lightning speed, maintaining authenticity can be tricky, and writers have their work cut out for them when they try to portray realistically the way that any group of people speak to each other, especially when writing about a group of people with a particular idiolect that may be different from their own.

It’s certainly true that an individual’s personal grasp of contemporary language may fall short of complete comprehension. So while the concept of a weekend to mark the end of the working week has been around since 1638 according to the earliest OED citation, it rings completely true when, in an early episode of Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess – played by a stately and wry Maggie Smith – asks the pretender to the Crawley fortune and title in disdainful astonishment: ‘What is a weekend?’ Never having worked a day in her life (one imagines) she has never had a need for the word, or conversed with people who used it.

And so one person’s centuries-old tradition becomes another’s incomprehensible slang.

Photo by Dutourdumonde Photography / Shutterstock.com

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