The momentous season 3 finale of the gigantic transatlantic hit show got me thinking about the parlor game that for many has become a continuing accompaniment to the actual broadcasts: catching out the show’s writer, Julian Fellowes, and his researchers when they put words in the actors’ mouths that just wouldn’t have been sayable at the time the story is set. One Princeton history grad student, Benjamin Schmidt, has devoted an entire section of his blog (Prochronisms, or “Downton Crabbey”) to a running discussion and serious statistical analysis of these bloopers, episode by episode, including some persistent offenders, such as “contact” used as a verb. Here are five of the more heinous outliers. Roll on season 4!
I’m just sayin’
Said to the cook, Mrs. Patmore, by Ethel (the housemaid later fired after being seduced by an officer; she goes on to have his baby, becomes a “fallen woman,” and is eventually rehabbed by do-gooding Isobel Crawley, Matthew’s mother), this now common phrase has two related senses: it’s tacked on to a remark that might be seen as critical or upsetting as a way of preventing offense from being taken; and it’s used ironically to convey an often sly implication—as in, for instance, “Since Thomas went off to the war, the whisky seems to last a lot longer. I’m just sayin’…” Used like this, says Schmidt, the expression simply doesn’t exist before World War II. And it was rare in England until more recently than that.
In 1913, Mary Crawley memorably loses her virginity to the hot son of the Turkish ambassador, in a scandalous season 1 episode during which he dies in her bed post-coitum and has to be lugged back to his own room by Lady Grantham and the maids to conceal the fact. Mr. Pamuk is said to be from “Istanbul”—but to the British and other Westerners before and during the First World War, the great city of the Ottoman Empire was known as Constantinople; it didn’t officially become Istanbul until the Republic of Turkey was created in 1923.
Scheming footman and valet (pronounced VAL-it, not val-AY) Thomas comes back from the war with his self-inflicted wound (known as a “Blighty,” because such injuries were designed to get you invalided home to Blighty, the nickname for Britain) and sets out to earn some cash on the side by selling food in short supply to the locals. His venture comes to a bad end, but not before there has been much discussion of the morals of making money off “the black market,” a phrase that did not come into being until World War II, when shortages and rationing—and therefore ways of profiting from them—became a huge part of life. In fact, many of the phrases we associate with war were creations of the Second World War rather than the First—including even the noun-adjectives “wartime” and “peacetime,” which seem as though they might be much older.
It was Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), of all people, who came out with this seriously terrible lapse in the recent season 3 finale, talking about the difficulties of bringing up a daughter in the crazy modern Roaring ’20s. “Parent,” used as a verb instead of “raise” or “care for,” isn’t just a word that became popular sometime in the 1980s; it seems to exist before that only (and then rarely) when used as a synonym for “father”—i.e., performing the physical act required to conceive a child. “‘Parenting,’” says Schmidt, “is more than 5,000 times more common in modern texts than in ones from the 1920s.” In other words, no one would ever, ever have used it then, and especially not an aristocratic old lady who views any innovation with suspicion.
As if to rub it in, this anachronism appears not once but twice in season 3; Matthew Crawley refers to his “steep learning curve” in educating himself about running the Downton estate and figuring out how it works; and in last Sunday’s final episode it’s back—this time on the lips of Irish chauffeur-turned-son-in-law Tom Branson. While it’s true that academics and psychologists writing in professional journals began using the phrase sometime in the 1920s to describe the shape of a graph, there is no evidence that “learning curve” left the scientific world for the vernacular before about 1970. It seems the Downton team may have encountered a somewhat steep learning curve of their own.