The Foreign Language of 'Mad Men'

The show is known for historical accuracy. But do the characters really talk like people from the '60s?



With Mad Men's return on Sunday comes the return of the paeans to the show's attention to period detail. By various reports, Matthew Weiner devours half-century old letters, dresses actors in period undergarments, and even throws out suspiciously attractive fruit to ensure that nothing dispels the perfect illusion of the 1960s.

As a historian, though, I'm particularly interested in the show's language. In my research, I've been struck again and again at just how profoundly language changes from decade to decade. New expressions, phrases, and meanings are constantly entering into English. How true to the jet age could Mad Men's dialogue really be? The normal way to test things like this is to use personal expertise to notice a phrase that sounds wrong, and then to hit the reference books to confirm the hunch. This generally works for the most egregious mistakes: while watching Mad Men, lexicographers noticed the wrong edition of a dictionary, media types picked up on Joan Holloway's statement that "the medium is the message" in 1960, before McLuhan published, and the more historically minded noted the usage of "military-industrial complex" months before Eisenhower coined the phrase.

There's another approach that's less subtle, but far more comprehensive; check everything, whether it sounds inaccurate or not. Using digitized books, movie subtitles, and tools like the Google Ngram viewer (which was first developed in 2010 by the Harvard Cultural Observatory, where I have a fellowship this year), it's possible to write a computer program that looks at every single phrase to see if it really appeared in print in the 1960s. Doing so creates, essentially, an anachronism machine that ruthlessly seeks out and tags every potentially inaccurate line (of a certain length) in the script. Using a similar method, I was able to find dozens of mistakes in Downton Abbey; of course we all think Mad Men is better, but is it really?

At first, this seem to validate Weiner's fastidiousness; only about three times a season does Mad Men use a two-word phrase completely absent from 1960s books, and usually it is plausibly related to advertising. (The closest thing to a notable exception is an aside from Salvatore Romano about "espresso beans" in season one: no one seems to have felt any need to call them more than "coffee beans" until the 1980s.) In fact, the writing staff actually uses Google Books to ensure period accuracy.

It's one thing to simply avoid defying credulity; it's another, though, to approach actual authenticity. Against this bar, Mad Men is significantly less successful. Just because a word snuck into print once or twice in the 1960s does not mean the gang at Sterling Cooper would have known it. The clearest signs that the Mad Men writers can't really escape the present is not the complete, howling mistake, but the steady slip; a drumbeat of language that's just slightly too modern. There are another dozen phrases in Mad Men that are at least 100 times more common today than in the early '60s, and the bulk of the show lies in language characteristic of today, not of the past.

What are these mistakes? Many seem relatively harmless, but betray the modern writers. When Lane Pryce tells Draper that no one asked him to "euthanize" Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in season four, for example, his lines are clearly penned by a writer from the post-Kevorkian era. Had Pryce wanted to take the rare step of making "euthanasia" a verb, he would have been far more likely to say "euthanatize;" but most likely of all, he wouldn't have said anything of the sort.

Other slips show how complicated the notion of historical authenticity is. The combination "lips sink," spoken by Pete Campbell's mother-in-law in season 1, threw a major alarm from the machine, even though "Loose lips sink ships" was originally a World War II propaganda poster. (Technically, actually, the poster said "loose lips might sink ships:" most modern prints seem to remove the "might" for impact.) But though the phrase did originate during the war, it quickly fell out of use afterwards. Only in the 1970s (presumably thanks to an influx of dorm-room reprints) did the poster re-enter the common vocabulary.

It's in business language, though, that Mad Men really shows its weaknesses. Modern boardroom language creeps in with striking regularity. Take the verb "leverage," for example. Last season, Pete Campbell angrily reported that Philip Morris used Sterling-Cooper "to leverage a sweeter deal" from another agency. Leverage presumably sounded like a hard-nosed business term in the table read; but it comes from banking, and hard as it may be to remember, investment bankers did not always rule the roost of American business. Widespread use of "to leverage" metaphorically is a creation of Reagan's America, not Kennedy's. Don Draper and his peers in grey flannel suits looked out on a dull, relatively unimportant banking sector; for them, leverage meant debt as much as it meant power. Not only is the individual phrase wrong; so is the whole field of metaphor. Talking like an investment banker would have had approximately the allure of talking like an accountant.

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Benjamin Schmidt is an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University and and a core-faculty member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks.

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