The Foreign Language of 'Mad Men'

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

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AMC

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.

Business vernacular seems to trip up the writers again and again. Draper's new contract in season three includes a "signing bonus," a phrase that was extremely rare outside of sports (the staid "bonus for signing" was far more common); Paul Kinsey is urged to "keep a low profile" at a meeting in 1963, a phrase that spread like wildfire only in 1969; and in season four Honda sets a series of rules to "even the playing field" in a competition, a phrase that (along with the more common "level the playing field") seems to have entered the boardroom around 1977.

It's not only business, though. There are scores of idioms that are strikingly modern. "Feel good about," "match made in heaven," "tough act to follow," "make eye contact," "fantasize about"; all are at least tenfold more common today than in Mad Men's times. Any of these individually might be perfectly plausible; but for "feel good about," for example, to be said four separate times over the course of the show by several different characters is extraordinarily unlikely. Such flaws aren't just anecdotal; shows and movies from the 1960s, written by writers with as sure a grasp of the spoken language as Weiner, have far fewer outliers from the print corpus than their modern imitators. The Twilight Zone, for example, doesn't use "feel good about" once in over 100 episodes.

It may seem unfair to pick on Mad Men for its language inaccuracies; after all, Shakespeare's characters spoke highly untraditional English, and great shows like Deadwood routinely ran roughshod over any form of linguistic accuracy. But the careful balance of anachronism, in all its forms, is at the heart of the Mad Men's mechanics far more than Shakespeare's. We watch the show to revel in the foreignness of the recent past. The drinking, the smoking, the leering, and even the personal reserve all remind us that the modern world isn't the only one. (This can be a problem, as Benjamin Schwarz wrote in The Atlantic after season two; it can be hard to be enveloped in a world so deliberately off-putting.) Weiner even deliberately plays with anachronisms: At the very end of the show's first season, set in 1960, Don Draper returns home hoping to see his picture-perfect family in front of him. Instead he finds an empty house, and the season fades to black to Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." It works perfectly well as a score for an abandoned husband; but knowing that the song wasn't released for another three years adds the weight of the shift in decades to Draper's plight. Weiner explained the choice to the Times as an attempt to outline the future of the show if it were cancelled.

Given that, the modern sound of Mad Men is certainly a flaw, if a minor one. It makes us feel more at home just where we shouldn't. That raises an interesting question: can even the most common phrases disturb the environment if the vocabulary is too heavily weighted towards the modern? What seems to be the most ubiquitous mistake in Mad Men is so frequent as to be invisible: the phrase "I need to." Modern scripts set in 1960s, including Mad Men, use it constantly: it's about as frequent as everyday words like "good," "between," or "most." But to say "I need to" so much is a surprisingly modern practice: books, television shows, and movies from the 1960s use it at least ten times less often, and many never use it all. Sixties dialogue written back then used "ought to" far more often than modern imitators do. I checked several movies and TV seasons from 1960 to 1965, and all use "ought to" more often than "need to"; every modern show I could find set in the '60s does the reverse. Google Ngrams shows the trend clearly as well.

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That's just a statistic, but it hints at something deeper. Even more than anachronism, a core theme of Mad Men is the lost art of personal reserve, self-effacement, and mystery. When Don Draper says, "Tell Jimmy I need to talk to him" in season 2 instead of "I have to talk to him," it hits a slightly more narcissistic, self-revealing note than it should. A baby boomer might set up a business meeting by invoking his personal needs; but a member of the "silent generation"—particularly one living a double life like Draper—doesn't talk about himself quite so readily. If Mad Men used "need to" at the 60s rate, all those characteristics would be stronger. I never noticed it before the statistics pointed it out, though, and apparently none of the writers did either. The language of the past is fundamentally a foreign one. Scriptwriters and novelists can try to mimic it, but can never speak it like a true native. In the end, the show's departures from the past may let us see just how much everything has changed even more than its successes.

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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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