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On Language: 'Mad Men'-ese

Ben Zimmer|The New York Times
Saturday, 24 Jul 2010 | 11:20 AM ET

As the fourthseason of the AMC series “Mad Men” kicks off, some of the show’s fans are gearing up to play another round of a peculiar language game: trying to spot flaws in the meticulously constructed dialogue portraying 1960s Madison Avenue.

Jon Hamm
Source: amc.com
Jon Hamm

No show in American television history, it is safe to say, has ever put so much effort into maintaining historically appropriate ways of speaking — and no show has attracted so much scrutiny for its efforts. The three seasons that have been broadcast, set between 1960 and 1963, triggered endless arguments in online discussion forums, with entire threads devoted to potential anachronisms. Among recent small-screen forays into historical fiction, only “Deadwood,” which ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, generated remotely comparable discussion about the authenticity of its language. (Commenters on that series tended to focus on whether its torrents of colorful, modern-sounding cursing were out of place for a South Dakota mining camp in the 1870s — which they almost certainly were.)

When I spoke recently with Matthew Weiner, the creator, executive producer and head writer of “Mad Men,” he readily admitted that goofs sneak through on his show. He said he still regrets allowing the character Joan to say “The medium is the message” in the first season, four years before Marshall McLuhan introduced the dictum in print. But he defends Joan’s year-end valedictory, “1960, I am so over you,” by pointing to the Cole Porter song “So in Love” from “Kiss Me, Kate.” Scholars of semantics might disagree, seeing a nuance between Porter’s use of the adverb so, which quantifies the extent to which the character is in love, and the later Generation X-style spin on the word as an intensifier meaning “extremely” or “completely” without any comparison of relative degree.

Other lines that have struck a discordant note with quibblers include Don’s “The window for this apology is closing” and Roger’s “I know you have to be on the same page as him.” Window in its metaphorical sense (as in a window of opportunity) and on the same page evidently date to the late ’70s. In a piece in The New Republic, the linguist John McWhorter complained that Peggy’s line “I’m in a very good place right now” is actually in a bad place, historically speaking. Even interjections can come under fire. When the character Sal reacts to the abrupt end of a screening of “Bye Bye Birdie” by exclaiming “awwa!” his falling-and-rising intonation has a 21st-century tinge, according to the linguist Neal Whitman.

Very often, however, fans will discern anachronisms that aren’t there — “un-achronisms,” as they were dubbed in the online forum Television Without Pity. Deborah Lipp, who runs the “Mad Men” fan blog Basket of Kisses with her sister Roberta, has dispelled fans’ concerns about the appearance of words like intense, lifestyle, self-worth, regroup and recon. She credits the hard work of the “Mad Men” brain trust with making sure that the true clunkers are few and far between.

To a large extent, Weiner and his staff members brought this festival of nitpickery on themselves through their own perfectionism. The show is famous for its loving attention to retro details, most notably in the set design (Weiner has been known to halt production over matters as subtle as the size of fruit in a bowl) and wardrobe (the actresses bravely suffer through the exquisite discomfort of vintage undergarments). Language naturally comes under the same microscope. To try to ensure accuracy, Weiner and his fellow writers sometimes take cues from the films and books of the era, but, as Weiner told me, those sources don’t necessarily provide the best window into genuine speech patterns. “You’re much better off if you can find a letter from your grandmother,” he said. He did acknowledge that Joan owes much of her sultry style to the writings of Helen Gurley Brown, the author of ’60s advice books like “Sex and the Single Girl” and “Sex and the Office.”

Even after a script is painstakingly developed, Weiner said, certain words and phrases can be flagged as questionable during the table read, when the cast runs through the dialogue for the first time. Whenever there is a question of usage, the research staff consults the Oxford English Dictionary, slang guides and online databases to determine whether an expression is documented from the era and could have been plausibly uttered. “When in doubt,” Weiner said, “I don’t use it.”

Despite his aversion to revealing anything about the new season, Weiner did let slip two examples of words from coming episodes that had to be researched thoroughly before they were deemed acceptable. One is humorless, a pedestrian adjective that is recorded back to the mid-19th century but nonetheless sounded “really modern” in the portion of dialogue where it appears. The other word is much more vivid — too vivid for print here, in fact, but suffice to say it’s a scatological slur for a person’s head. Though cursing on “Mad Men” isn’t as rampant as it was on “Deadwood” or “The Sopranos” (on which Weiner previously worked), it has its place in the show and promises to become more prominent as the characters move through the ever-liberalizing ’60s.

As the show progresses, new linguistic pitfalls await the writers. Weiner says he welcomes the fault-finding from fans, because he identifies himself as “one of the most nitpicky people in the world.” “I’m glad that we’re held to a high standard, and I’m glad that people get pleasure from picking it apart,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, it’s a battle for me to make sure it’s right.”

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