Linguistic gotcha at ‘Downton Abbey’
The Dowager Countess would never say that!
Since PBS picked it up for its “Masterpiece Classic” series last year, the British television sensation “Downton Abbey” has inspired an outpouring of stateside Anglophilia. Set on the idyllic Grantham estate in the early 20th century, the show is beloved by millions of fans for its melodrama, explorations of class tensions, and witty banter. With the American airing of the second season coming to a close next Sunday, “Downton”-mania is reaching a fever pitch.
Part of the show’s charm is in the details: The post-Edwardian period décor, costumes, and sumptuous scenery all seem just right. But with drama that is so dependent on dialogue, one aspect of the show has come in for particular attention from sharp-eared fans: the accuracy of its language.
In its native country, “Downton Abbey” has already taken it on the chin for some verbal anachronisms in Season Two (which was broadcast in the United Kingdom late last year). “Downton Abbey characters caught using modern phrases,” ran one scandalized headline in the Telegraph, with no less an authority than Oxford English Dictionary chief editor John Simpson weighing in on whether some of the show’s slang was just a bit too contemporary for the season’s World War I setting.
In the United States, audiences for prestigious period dramas have come to expect a high level of precision in the depiction of bygone eras. Shows such as “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” and “Boardwalk Empire” have all presented fastidiously constructed simulacra of historical worlds. If details aren’t quite right, viewers are sure to air their quibbles online. But a British production is less likely to set off warning bells of anachronism among American viewers, who may not be as familiar with which expressions flourished when across the pond.
Some of the “modern phrases” singled out by the Telegraph are quite British indeed, as when the footman Thomas Barrow uses “get knotted” to mean “go to hell.” While Simpson pegged the expression to the 1960s, slang expert Jonathon Green was able to trace it a bit further back when I asked him about it, as far back as the 1944 “Penguin New Writing” series. Still, that’s well after the episode’s setting in early 1918.
In another episode, Thomas has the line, “I get fed up seeing how our lot always get shafted,” which caught the attention of both British and American fans. “Shaft” meaning “to treat unfairly” is originally an Americanism, making its first known appearance in Mickey Spillane’s 1951 novel “The Long Wait,” according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.
Indeed, many of the occasional slip-ups by “Downton Abbey” screenwriter Julian Fellowes are American expressions, both out of place and out of time. In that episode set in 1918, two different characters talk of trying to “contact” someone. But as the branding expert Nancy Friedman pointed out on her Fritinancy blog, the “get in touch with” meaning of “contact” emerged as an American colloquialism about a decade later.
Other expressions were known in the States, but would have been unlikely to have been used by the denizens of Downton (despite the fact that Lady Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern, is herself an American). Would Mrs. Patmore, the cook, really have said, “When push comes to shove, I’d rather do it myself”? Highly unlikely: “when push comes to shove,” though dated by the OED to 1898, was primarily in African-American use well into the 20th century. An impatient Lord Grantham tells his chauffeur to “step on it,” though in the 1910s that expression was just making itself known on that side of the Atlantic, alongside similarly slangy calls for acceleration like “step on her” and “step on her tail.”
Two feminine putdowns heard on the show, “floozy” and “uppity minx,” also strain credulity when voiced by British characters. “Uppity” was another Americanism, used by Joel Chandler Harris in his “Uncle Remus” stories — an equivalent Briticism to describe someone’s haughty air would have been “uppish.”
But all this nitpicking obscures the real linguistic pleasures of the show. The dialogue is often sparkling, with many of the best bons mots given to Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Fellowes also skillfully uses language to signal gaps between characters — based on class, age, or both — at a time of great social upheaval. In one early episode, the Dowager Countess has to inquire what a “weekend” is; the working week is entirely outside her purview. As the series goes on, and World War I and its aftermath bring the upper and lower classes together, modernity begins to shine through in the speech of the younger characters, even if this leads to the occasional anachronism.
Take Lord Grantham’s youngest daughter, Sybil, who longs to break free from her aristocratic chains, and who takes up with Branson, the politically minded chauffeur, at war’s end. When her father warns her that she will be giving up her pampered life, Sybil responds, “I couldn’t care less.” No matter that this turn of phrase is too new by about 25 years: It bluntly encapsulates Sybil’s disinterest in her old life. And in that moment, I suspect most “Downton” fans couldn’t care less that the dialogue isn’t 100 percent true to the times; it is certainly true to the character.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.