Lexicon Valley

Is Masters of Sex as Anachronistic as The New Yorker Says? No Way.

Hendrik Hertzberg made a series of claims recently on the New Yorker website (“Nobody Said That Then!“) about the ostensible inaccuracy of the language used in the television show Masters of Sex. His main contention is that many of the characters’ utterances are improbable, asserting that certain words and phrases were not in use at the time that the show takes place (the mid-1950s). One of the problems with making bold and declarative statements about the origins of specific words is that these words have a nasty habit of first appearing much earlier or later than memory or intuition would attest.

After praising the writing on the show, Hertzberg spends the bulk of his essay explaining why 12 words and phrases would not have been heard from the mouths of these characters, and wraps up by calling for increased accuracy in the language used in such period dramas. It is unclear what reference sources Hertzberg uses to establish his claims of linguistic inaccuracy; one suspects that his contentions are based more on memory than anything else, as many of the words that he says did not exist at that time were in fact in use.

An over-reliance on personal recollection is an easy trap to fall into when tracking the history of a word, especially when it falls within the span of one’s own life. I recently wasted the better part of an afternoon trying to find an antedating to the earliest evidence currently found in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun form of high-five. The first citation now is from 1980, and I was positive that I remembered the word being in common usage among children when I grew up in the 1970s. While it is possible that the word was in common parlance orally, but not written down until the 1980s, the fact remains that there is no evidence to be found (by me, at least) of this word for the time that I was quite certain it was in use.

Hertzberg objects to the show’s adverbial use of way, in the phrase “This is way more than you owe me.” (“No. No way. No one used ‘way’ this way in 1953, not even Valley Girls,” he writes). However, the OED has evidence for this form of adverbial use (denoting “much” or “far”) from 1941. And there is evidence of exactly the same phrase used in the show (“way more than”), found in an article from the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1951: “California’s billion dollar state budget proposal for 1951-52 is three and one-half times as great as the $281,733,781 actually spent by the state in 1939-40—and on a per capita basis it is way more than twice as much as for 1939-40.”

Similarly, Hertzberg faults the inclusion of breaking news, writing “You might have heard this phrase in the newsroom of the New York World-Telegram, circa 1953, but it filtered down to the general public decades later…” Yet we can find common evidence of the phrase considerably earlier than that: it occurs in an article from Barron’s in 1940: “From here on in the strategy of our canniest political Quarterback, now calling signals for his third ‘Touchdown,’ will be to blanket the front pages with ‘breaking news,’ speak of the issues in a sermon-on-the-mount style, and try to ignore his opponent right up to Election Day if he can and dares.”

Additionally, Hertzberg makes several claims that are not well-supported by the current evidentiary record of our language: he says that meritocracy was coined in 1958 (it appears in 1956), and, quoting William Safire, says that game-changer first appeared in 1982 (it has been in use since at least 1962).

I have a feeling that Hertzberg is falling prey to the same problem that I did when looking for evidence of high-five in the 1970s: we were both using our childhood memories as linguistic evidence (Hertzberg was roughly the same age in the mid-50s that I was in the mid-70s). In his defense, he is largely correct: some of the words he calls into question were not actually used at that time, and some of the others were not in widespread use. Still, it is problematic to center your piece on the inaccuracy of someone else’s language use when the dates you provide to contradict them are not in order. Ben Schmidt has an impressive analysis of the currency and accuracy of the language in Masters of Sex (as well as some lovely graphs). Schmidt’s work relies on computer algorithms, rather than memory, and his conclusions are well-grounded.

Had Hertzberg chosen to make the essay about the unreliability of memory as corpus he would have avoided all these problems. But then he would have been stuck with a title along the lines of Words I Don’t Remember People Using When I Was Twelve, and who would want to read that?

A version of this post appeared on Language Log.