The writers of old-timey Netflix hits like ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘Mank’ sometimes flub their lines

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(Netflix)

In the most meticulously-crafted period dramas, historical accuracy runs deep. The showrunners of Mad Men knew this well; even the actors’ underwear was true to the time. But sometimes anachronisms are hiding in plain sight — or within earshot. In 2012, historian Benjamin Schmidt wrote an article for The Atlantic detailing what the series’ writers got wrong about the state of the English language in the 1960s. Some of the most astounding offenses he lists are phrases that sound completely ordinary to modern viewers, such as to feel good about, to make eye contact, and to even the playing field, all of which, according to Schmidt, roll off the characters’ tongues far more easily than they would have in real-life conversations between mid-century advertising executives. …


Express Yourself

Other languages have polite second-person pronouns. English used to have one, too.

Two people aiming flashlight at each other at night on the street.
Two people aiming flashlight at each other at night on the street.
Photo: Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

If you studied French at school, you may recall the mild culture shock that comes with learning the second-person pronouns. Tu and vous both translate as “you,” but can’t be used interchangeably. Provided you’re speaking to one person, you have the rather dicey task of assessing how formal you should be with your addressee, taking into account their age and status, as well as how familiar you are with them. This would seem cut and dry if you were talking to a toddler or a tax collector, but consider, for example, a co-worker who is close to you in age, yet ranks higher than you within your company. Use the familiar form and you risk seeming insolent. …


The word ‘ironic’ has always been a troublemaker, but its latest transformation may be the most mystifying yet

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(Anna Shvets / Pexels)

Remember how, in the 2010s — yes, that’s right, the decade that gave us Snapchat, “Gangnam Style”, one good Adam Sandler movie, and Covid-19 — everybody was losing their marbles over the word literally? Remember how long it took for pedants to give up trying to keep its meaning neatly segregated from that of figuratively? I, for one, am literally over the moon that’s behind us.

But people always need some new coinage or turn of phrase to pick on. In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson expresses familiar-sounding frustration with clever, describing it as “a low word, scarcely ever used but in burlesque or conversation; and applied to any thing a man likes, without a settled meaning.” The verb to contact was once disparaged as the lazy man’s to make contact with, and there was a two-year period during which The New York Times’ editors banned all non-ornithological uses of the word tweet in the paper because it wasn’t standard English. Some particularly topical buzzwords that aren’t offensive per se but seem to come with a litany of damned-if-you-do terms of use include Orwellian and fascist, although an individual’s (read: Twitter user’s) personal interpretation of these words might come down to political ideology rather than a genuine interest in semantics. Literally was a generational thing, and disapproval of its hyperbolic sense was perhaps thinly-veiled resentment for the young people who were using it that way. …


Grammatical headaches, lexical gaps — they’re what make English so much fun

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(Cris DiNoto / Unsplash)

Pretend for a moment that social taboos, political correctness, and copyright laws were no object, and answer me this: is there anything you can’t say in English? Are there ideas too lofty for our language to handle? It’s frequently said (though also frequently contested) that English has the largest vocabulary known to man. As Bill Bryson writes in Mother Tongue:

Altogether, about 200,000 English words are in common use, more than in German (184,000) and far more than in French (a mere 100,000). …


Express Yourself

The English language continues to be inconsistent and bewildering

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Photo: Visit Greenwich/flickr (CC 2.0)

For all of English’s maddening complexities—including an illogical spelling system, a plethora of irregular verbs, and inconsistent stress patterns being — one way the language is comparatively simple is that it lacks grammatical gender. Unlike their counterparts in France, for example, English grammarians aren’t saddled with the task of deciding whether newly coined words like “Covid” should be encoded in the language as masculine or feminine (it’s the latter, by the way, according to the French academy). And contrary to French, English has no “manly breasts” or “womanly beards,” no “boyish hair elastics” or “girlish combine harvesters.” You won’t hear an Anglophone saying, “Have you seen the dining room? We just had him painted.” Or, “I just bought a boat. …


How ‘dear’ has survived into the digital age, despite the mixed messages it sends

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(Stephen Phillips - Hostreviews.co.uk / Unsplash)

Don’t you find it odd how every e-mail you get from your bank asking you to review the terms of service or a delivery company informing you your parcel has gotten wedged between a rock and a hard place begins with the word dear? Dear, a word normally so fraught with emotion that in spoken language we wouldn’t use it to address anyone who isn’t our significant other, if at all, and rarely put it in front of any noun that isn’t life, God, or Watson (the holy trifecta)? …


Why some of us go to great lengths to avoid using ‘themself’ — and why we should embrace it instead

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(ElisaRiva / Pixabay)

In case you missed it, the jury is no longer out on whether or not singular they is acceptable. Heeding the calls of both LGBTQ activists and those who simply abhor linguistic prescriptivism (a.k.a. grammar Nazism), a number of highly-regarded news agencies and presses have incorporated the pronoun into their style guides, and in 2019, Merriam-Webster made singular they its word of the year. Such decisions are primarily in the interest of inclusivity, but the word also facilitates smoother language use when referring to someone whose gender is unknown. …


Where did words like ‘aesthetic’ and ‘cottagecore’ come from?

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(Izabela Pawlicka / flickr)

There are certain words that have been … I hesitate to say “ruined”, but at least mutated irreparably by the Internet. Aesthetic is one of them. Originally coined by the philosopher Immanuel Kant to refer to the science of sensory perception, today it is widely accepted as an abbreviation of the phrase aesthetically pleasing. In the early 2010s, this sense of the word became a hobby horse for aficionados of the “Vaporwave” subculture. …


Express Yourself

Linguists analyze the lengths we take to avoid seeming rude

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Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images

“What’s the magic word?” our parents asked when we stomped into the room demanding they help us find a missing toy. Over time, we learned that our requests could be fulfilled more expediently if we offered up a “please” without being prompted. Hey, what a neat trick!

But then we reached school age and found ourselves berated for breaking other mysterious rules, like pronouncing “give me” as “gimme” or repeating one of the four-letter words we’d heard bandied about. …


The case for making the unstressed second-person pronoun a part of standard English

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A statue of John Steinbeck, the king of eye dialect (Public domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Floyd said patiently, ‘I know ya jus’ got here. They’s stuff ya got to learn. If you’d let me tell ya, it’d save ya somepin. If ya don’ let me tell ya, then ya got to learn the hard way. You ain’t gonna settle down ’cause they ain’t no work to settle ya. An’ your belly ain’t gonna let ya settle down. Now — that’s straight.’

One of the telltale signs of a John Steinbeck novel is the heavy use of eye dialect. As with George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, the dialogue of Floyd and several other characters in The Grapes of Wrath is transcribed in a quasi-phonetic style to mimic the speech patterns of poor rural Americans in the 1930s. Passages like the one above can be read as a checklist of linguistic features we’ve all been trained to avoid if we want to excel in a job interview or an oral exam, with the biggest red flags among them being g-dropping, incorrect conjugation (as in “They’s”), the word ain’t, and the word ya. …

About

Clare C.H.

Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literary Studies in Belgium. clarech.carrd.co

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