I’m as big a Downton Abbey fan as the next lover of soap opera gloss, but I’ve been struck increasingly by the show’s verbal anachronisms. These are forms of speech that nobody would have been caught saying in the 1920s, especially not aristocrats, whose servants speak better than almost anyone living today. We hear a lot about how the series strives for historical accuracy through consultation with experts. (The web, however, is crawling with “gotcha” lists of the show’s historical blunders.) Why isn’t somebody monitoring the dialogue for wording that’s jarringly modern? The characters don’t have to speak in stilted, outdated ways; they need only avoid expressions that are way ahead of their time.
Although, as I watch the show, I keep getting in and out of my chair to take notes, I never get all of the details down. But I can recall enough about each instance to make my point. In an example from an earlier episode in Season 4, Branson replied to somebody about something on the order of afternoon cream tea, “It’s not my thing.” Suddenly, I couldn’t get the Isley Brothers to stop playing in my head. In this case, the wording was doubly anachronistic: both way too modern and way old-fashioned.
The last episode of Season 4 abounded in similar indiscretions. Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson’s engagement has unfolded in the most adorable of ways. They are so demure, so coy with one another. But when they were getting around to pledging their troth, Mrs. Hughes expressed some discomfort at the prospect that Carson might someday feel “stuck with” her. A round of exchanges in which each agreed to the other to “be stuck with you” triggered another replay, barely less outdated than the last: Huey Lewis and the News dug into my inner ear as relentlessly as an ear wig, momentarily diminishing Hughes and Carson’s charm.
The worst offense and the least likely to issue from the mouth of a Downtonite was Lady Mary’s response to whoever said, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” “Nor me,” Mary replied, as scandalized by whatever the “thing” in question was as we were shocked to hear her use the wrong pronoun.
When Robert was about to speak to the household at the annual Christmas gathering and was feeling the effects of having drunk alcohol for the first time in a while, Cora expressed concern. Why? “He’s plastered,” Cora explained. Suspicious that the date of this usage was later than 1924, the year of the Christmas party, I consulted the trusty OED—The Oxford English Dictionary—whose reason for being is to trace a word’s history. In fact, I learned that “plastered” in the sense of “inebriated” entered into usage as early as 1912, beating the show’s setting by a generous decade. “Drunk,” dating to 1350, might have been a safer historical choice, but not so cutting edge.
On the other hand, Isobel Crawley’s reference to something being “played out,” as we might refer to Lindsay Lohan and her legal difficulties, pushed the boundaries over that cutting edge.