How Language Gives Period Dramas Away
The writers of old-timey Netflix hits like ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and ‘Mank’ sometimes flub their lines
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. But perhaps the biggest gotcha comes from a 2007 blogpost by the author Paul Levinson, who points out that Joan Holloway’s line “Well, you know what they say: ‘the medium is the message’” predates the expression’s entry into the vernacular by about four years.
If Mad Men fumbled the ball, what hope is there for the swarm of recent Netflix hits capitalising on viewers’ nostalgia for simpler, Covid-free times? While some may exhibit decent attention-to-detail as far as contemporary fashion, architecture, and current affairs, the language of the past consistently proves to be one tough cookie to crack. The Queen’s Gambit, whose narrative takes us from the late ’50s into 1968, has the advantage of being based on a novel published relatively close to the time period in which it is set, but the scriptwriter’s frequent forays off-book lead to some noticeable inaccuracies. For example, an irritable convenience store clerk tells a customer “It’s not rocket science”, despite the fact that the phrase only became popular by way of American sports pundits in the 1980s — before then, the go-to metaphor for a difficult task was brain surgery. “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke,” Jolene says in the series finale, though the slogan’s earliest instance, according to an Oxford monograph on the F word, is in Ed Cray’s 1973 book Burden of Proof. This expression, too, seems to have risen to prominence in the 1980s: it was during this decade that it was used in Bette Middler’s bestselling autobiography and began appearing on printed t-shirts produced by Mother Jones Magazine.
Predictably, the further back in time we go, the more work there is for screenwriters to do if they really want to pitch the dialogue right — just look at the series Hollywood. It’s been described as “gleefully ahistorical”, though some effort is made to honour real figures and events of the post-WWII period in which it takes place. Interestingly, the screenwriters seem to have a preoccupation with using language to set the scene — the pilot shows one aspiring actor educating another on contemporary industry lingo (helming, lensing), and later on, an elocution coach is seen explaining the soundscape of the mid-Atlantic accent, the Anglo-American hybrid deemed most appropriate for the silver screen at the time. However, the script definitely doesn’t always get things right. It falls into the same trap as Mad Men by including the verb to fantasise about, which only became common in the ’70s. One character calls the Chinese-American actress Anna Mae Wong “a tough sell”, a sales term that wouldn’t emerge until the following decade, and even then was chiefly used to refer to aggressive salesmanship rather than an unmarketable product. Another out-of-place business term is done deal, which wouldn’t appear in print until 1959. A forthright doctor tells his patient’s cheating husband to “keep it in [his] pants”, an expression which most likely would have only been understood in the non-bawdy sense (i.e., to keep an item in one’s pocket) in the 1940s.
David Fincher’s film Mank, another recent Netflix release that takes place during the Golden Age of Hollywood, is clearly more concerned with historical accuracy, but this is arguably to its detriment. The screenplay was penned by Fincher’s late father, who seems to have been working on intuition to give the dialogue the quaint ring of the ’30s and ’40s, a strategy that leads to both hits and misses. A character pledges to “keep [Orson Welles] to date on our progress”, leaving out the word up perhaps to lessen the term’s modern connotations of computer software or 24-hour newscasts. There’s no need, however: up to date has been around since the 19th century. Some slang is used prematurely — the word boonies, spoken by one of Herman Mankiewicz’s colleagues, only appeared in the ’50s, and Marion Davies uses the word bonkers nearly a decade before it was coined. It’s also Davies who complains she’s craving a ciggy-boo, which didn’t enter the lexicon until 1958, according to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. Nonetheless, Mank has some nice touches. The verb scandalise is uttered as a byword for horrify, a usage that seems to have fallen into disuse today, and the title character’s colourful vocabulary includes some long-forgotten political buzzwords like muckraker and ward heeler.
Enola Holmes is set more or less contemporaneously with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, and obvious attempts are made to capture the Victorian flair, but as with Mank the screenplay sometimes overshoots the distance. “But when growing up in the countryside, there is little excitement, so one clings to whatever narratives one can get,” says Enola, getting good use of that stuffy generic pronoun, despite the fact that the non-specific you was well-established in English by 1884, and is even found in some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.
There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can't unravel the thousand and first. (A Study in Scarlet, 1887)
There are some obvious blunders here and there — Enola refers to herself as undercover, although this kind of espionage-inspired talk wasn’t around until the 1920s. She is described by Lestrade as scrappy, which at the time was a synonym for sketchy, rather than an epithet for someone prone to fighting. Granted, some of the anachronisms could be taken as tongue-in-cheek, or so we should hope, such as the protagonist’s “Seriously?” as she struggles to lace up her boots. (And it should be noted that the movie doesn’t strain itself too much to achieve historical accuracy in other respects, either — one of the most glaring discrepancies is Enola’s mention of the Ritz hotel, which wouldn’t open in London until the beginning of the following century.)
Self-awareness is a good get-out-of-jail-free card for the screenwriters making these mistakes, but maybe we shouldn’t be setting our expectations too high in the first place. There will always be an air of mystery surrounding language as it was spoken before the invention of the voice recorder in the late 19th century, or even, it could be argued, before the advent of social media, when footage of people speaking candidly began to proliferate exponentially. Most of what we know about how people spoke in the 20th century comes from written texts and the scripted or self-conscious spoken language of film, TV, and radio, which are poisoned by a degree of artificiality. There is also, of course, memory, but as some of the above examples prove (The Queen’s Gambit, for instance, was adapted for the screen by someone who was born in 1960), memory is an imperfect reference. As time goes by, the slogans and inflections of yesteryear will become even more obscured. Maybe that’s okay — a high-quality film or TV show doesn’t need to be a history lesson. If the writing is good, audiences won’t balk at anything short of hearing the word bro in a revolutionary-era narrative. And even that can be pulled off, provided you really sell it.