Brow Beat

Is Mad Men More Careful About Language Than Downton Abbey?

A still of Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm, and Christina Hendricks on Mad Men.

Yesterday, I posted a new video by Slate contributor and Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer, detailing apparent linguistic anachronisms on Downton Abbey. Zimmer has now posted his explanation for each of the offending phrases—and he happens to address some of the questions raised by commenters on yesterday’s post.

Multiple commenters pointed out that “uppity” was in use by 1880, well before Downton Abbey takes place. However, Zimmer says that “uppity” did not come to England until well after it first appeared in the U.S.

On the American side, examples can be found back to 1880 (from the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris), but it did not make its way to the U.K. until much later: again, the Google Ngram Viewer identifies when it came into use in American and British English. (Uppish was an available British equivalent for “presumptuously arrogant.”)

Zimmer’s post also links to a previous video he made, addressing apparent anachronisms in the first three seasons of Mad Men. While Zimmer doesn’t come out and say so, reading these posts side-by-side leads me to believe that the writers of Mad Men are more careful about such things than Julian Fellowes and crew. (Though, I admit, having Joan say “the medium is the message” in 1960 is probably the most egregious error on either show; Matthew Weiner himself owned up to that one.) Of course, Mad Men is set in a much more recent era, so perhaps Fellowes just faces a greater degree of difficulty.

What do you think? Watch the Mad Men video below. And, in case you missed it, the Downton Abbey video can be found here.