“Julia” — Serving Up Words Before Their Time

May 4, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Marvelous Mrs. Anachronism” (here) is the post in this blog with by far  the most hits and comments.  And now we have “Julia,” the HBO series about Julia Child and the creation of her TV show “The French Chef.” It’s set in roughly the same time period, the early 1960s. And like “Mrs. Maisel,” it offers a rich tasting menu of anachronisms.

I don’t know why the producers don’t bother to check their scripts with someone who was around in 1962 – a retired sociologist, say, who is sensitive to language – but they don’t. Had they done so, they would have avoided the linguistic equivalent of a digital microwave in the kitchen and a Prius in the driveway. They would not have had a character say, “I’m o.k. with it.” Nor would an assistant assigned a task say, “I’m on it.” Nobody working with Julia would be excited to be on the front lines of “your process.” “Your method” perhaps or “your approach” or even “all that you do,” but not “your process.”

If you’re a TV writer, even an older writer of fifty or so, these phrases have been around for as long as you can remember, so maybe you assume they’ve always been part of the language.

But they haven’t. Sixty years ago, people might have asked how some enterprise made money or at least made ends meet. But they would not have asked it the way Julia’s father asks her: “What's the business model down there? Does public television even* have a business model?” 

In her equally anachronistic reply, Julia says, “Nothing's a done deal yet,” That one too sounded wrong. I don’t recall any done deals in 1962.

To check my memory, I went to Google nGrams. It shows the frequency of words and phrases as they occur in books. Most of the phrases that seemed off to my ear did not appear in books until the 1980s. A corpus of the language as spoken would have been better, and there’s a lag of a few years before new usages on the street make it to the printed page. But that lag time is certainly not the twenty years that nGrams finds.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

In another episode, we hear “cut to the chase,” but it was not till the 80s that we  skipped over less important details by cutting to the chase. (Oh well, at least nobody on “Julia” abbreviated a narrative with “yada yada.”) Or again, a producer considering the possibilities of selling the show to other stations says, “This could be game changer.” But “game changer” didn’t show up in books until four decades after “The French Chef” went on the air.   

“This little plot is genius,” says Julia’s husband. It may have been, but in 1962, genius was not an adjective. An unusual solution to a problem might be ingenious, but it was not simply “genius.” Even more incongruous was Julia’s telling the crowd that shows up for a book signing in San Francisco, “I'm absolutely gobsmacked by this turnout.”  Gobsmacked originated in Britain, but even in her years abroad, Julia would not have heard the term. Brits weren’t gobsmacked until the late 1970s, with Americans joining the chorus a decade or so later.

I heard other dubious terms that I did not know how to check. “The Yankees are toast,” says one character, presumably a Red Sox fan. It’s not just that in 1962 the Yankees were anything but toast, winning the AL pennant and the World Series; I doubt that anyone was “toast” sixty years ago.

The one that bothered me most was what Julia’s friend Avis says after making a small play on words. She adds, “See what I did?” I’m pretty sure this is a very recent usage and was not around in 1962. I’d just as soon not have it around today.

Finally, in the latest episode, which I just now saw and which inspired me to write this post, we have the anachronism that nobody notices — “need to” instead of “should” or “ought to” or other words that carry a hint of what is right or even moral. In “Julia,” a young couple meet for lunch at a diner. It’s a blind date, and as they talk, it becomes clear that they are a good match. They talk some more, and we cut to a different plot line. When we come back to the diner, the couple are still there, still talking, but they are now the only ones left in the place. The waitress comes to the table and tells them patiently, “You need to go.”

What she means of course is that she needs for them to go. In 1962, she would not have phrased it in terms of their needs. She would have said, “You have to go.”

* “Even” as an intensifier in this way may also not have come into use until much later in the century. See this Language Log post on “What does that even mean?”

Robert Morse, 1931 - 2022

April 21, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

The opening sentence of the Times obit  for Robert Morse mentions his roles in both “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in 1961 and “Mad Men” forty-six years later. Those Morse roles were linked in subtler ways — the characters’ career trajectories and their clothing choices, as. I pointed out in a 2010 post which I am hauling out of the archives on this Throwback Thursday.

The post was mostly about America’s concern with “conformity,” but Morse’s performance in the video from “How to Succeed” is worth two minutes and fifty-three seconds of your time even if you’re not considering the cultural-historic questions.


July 1, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” was on TMC Tuesday night in honor of the centenary of Frank Loesser’s birth. The Broadway show opened in 1961, sort of a musical comedy version of William H. Whyte’s 1956 best-seller The Organization Man.

Loesser’s musical was light satire; Whyte’s book was sociology. But the message of both was that corporations were places that demanded nearly mindless conformity of all employees. Or as Mr. Twimble tells the ambitious newcomer (J. Pierpont Finch), “play it the company way.”
FINCH:When they want brilliant thinking / From employees
TWIMBLE: That is no concern of mine.
FINCH: Suppose a man of genius / Makes suggestions.
TWIMBLE: Watch that genius get suggested to resign.
Conformity was a topic of much concern in America in those days, in the popular media and in social science (as in the Asch line length experiments). Today, not so much.
the Organization Man, if he ever existed, is dead now. The well-rounded fellow who gets along with pretty much everyone and isn’t overly brilliant at anything sees his status trading near an all-time low. And all those brilliant screwballs whose fate Whyte bemoaned are sitting now on top of corporate America.
So wrote Michael Lewis in Slate 1997.

That’s one version. I don’t really know if the corporate climate is different today (where’s an OrgTheorist when you need one?). No doubt, “brilliant screwballs” can find save haven in corporations, at least in areas that require technical brilliance, and some may wind up at the top. But I wonder how such quirkiness survives in other areas like sales. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her recent book Bright-Sided, looks at corporations today – with their motivational speakers and “coaches” – and sees the same old demand for cheerful, optimistic obedience, especially in this era of outsourcing and downsizing.
The most popular technique for motivating the survivors of downsizing was “team building” – an effort so massive that it has spawned a “team-building industry” overlapping the motivation industry. . . .
The literature and coaches emphasize that a good “team player” is by definition a “positive person.” He or she smiles frequently, does not complain, is not overly critical, and gracefully submits to whatever the boss demands.
Or as Frank Loesser put it,
FINCH: Your face is a company face.
TWIMBLE: It smiles at executives then goes back in place.
Here’s the whole song from the 1967 film version:

The movie has another uncanny resemblance to today. The costumes and even the sets look like “Mad Men” – not surprising since both are set in the New York corporate world of the early 1960s. But there’s more. In the Broadway show and then the musical of “How to Succeed,” Robert Morse (Finch), rises to become head of advertising. Fifty years later, in “Mad Men,” Robert Morse (Bert Cooper) is the head of an advertising agency. (And he’s still wearing a bow tie.)

I asked my son, a “Mad Men” watcher, to look at the 1967 movie and try to identify the actor playing Finch. He couldn’t, at least not without a hint or two.

Baby Names and the Value on Distinctiveness

March 15, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Namerology, the former Baby Name Voyager (here),is a great resource for anyone interested in graphs showing trends in baby names in the US. It uses the data from the Social Security Administration, but it’s graphs are much better than those you can create on the SSA Website. For instance, it allows you to compare names.

I wanted to explore the idea that the diversity of names is increasing. The most popular names today are not nearly as dominant as popular names in the past. It’s like TV show. The ratings or share-of-audience of today’s most popular shows — those kinds of numbers 20-20 years ago would have marked them for cancellation. Compare the most popular name for girls born in the 1990s,  Emily, with her counterpart in the 70s, Jennifer.

 Jennifer’s peak was three times higher than Emily’s.

Jennifer also stacks up well against the top name of the sixties (Lisa) and of the eighties (Jessica).

Jennifer’s popularity was extraordinary. Jessica was at the top for nine of the eleven years from 1985 to 1995. And Lisa held top spot for eight years, 1962 - 1969. But Jennifer was number one for fifteen years, 1970-1984. We will probably never see her like again.

But then along comes Mary. The numbers for Mary back in the day dwarf those for Jennifer at the height of her popularity.

I read this graph to mean that the way we think about names has changed. Today, we just assume that you don’t want to give your kid the same name that everyone else has. You want something that different, but not too different. But a hundred years ago, distinctiveness was not important criterion for parents choosing a name. Year in year out, the girls name most often chosen was the same year in year out — Mary.

Names may be only part of a more general change in ides about children. Demographer Philip Cohen (here) speculates that compared with parents in the early 1900s, parents in the latter half of the twentieth-century saw each child as a unique individual. After all, children were becoming scarcer.  From 1880 to 1940, the average number of children per family declined from 4.2 to 2.2, And while Mary remained the most popular name throughout that period, its market share declined from over 30,000 per million to about 20,000 per million.

The real shift starts in the 1960s. It may have been part of the general rejection of old cultural ways. But this was also the end of the baby boom. With new birth-control (the pill), having children became more a matter of choice. Family size declined even further. Each child was special and was deserving of a special name.

On Becoming a Beatles Listener

March 5, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the spring of 1964, I was getting a haircut in a barbershop in Tokyo. In the background a radio was playing American rock and pop. The sound was familiar even though I didn’t recognize any of the songs. I didn’t know any of the latest hits because I had spent the previous seven months in a small town up in the mountains. The family I was living with may have had a radio, but I cannot recall ever hearing it or what it played.. The music I would hear on the variety shows on TV was all Japanese pop or sometimes Japanese versions of American hits. To this day, there are certain songs that were popular then — “Devil in Disguise” or “Bye-bye Birdie” — which in my mind’s ear I still hear in Japanese rather than English.

As I sat there, not really paying attention to the music, I realized that the song now playing was repeating the words “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So this is it, I thought. This must be the Beatles that I’ve been reading about.  The Japan Times, the English-language newspaper that came daily to the house, had run stories about them. It also showed the Billboard Top-20 each week, and I would see Beatles songs in several of the toip slots. But in that barbershop that day, to me they sounded like the rest of the music that had been coming from the radio — conventional rock and roll.

I thought of that moment last month as I was reading David Brooks’s New York Times piece “What the Beatles Tell Us About Fame” (here).  “How did the Beatles make it?” Brooks asks, and he gets the answer right. Partly. He sees that it’s not just about the music. Whether that music gets heard — recorded, distributed, played on the radio — depends on lots of non-musicians.

But hearing is not the same as liking. So how do the people who heard this music decide that they liked it, and liked it a lot? Brooks has a simplistic model for this process. “If a highly confident member of your group thinks something is cool, you’ll be more likely to think it’s cool,” as though the Beatles happened because influencers (they weren’t called that in 1963) were at work promoting them. But is that how people form their judgments of music? Surely we don’t think “Cool people like this so I’ll like it too.”

To understand how so many people come to share the idea that something is really great, we need a model more along the lines of Howie Becker’s “On Becoming a Marijuana User.”  In that famous article, Becker identifies three necessary steps: learning the technique of smoking weed, learning to identify the effects, and learning to define those effects as pleasurable.

Of course, listening to rock and roll doesn’t require any special technique. But what about identifying the effects? As my barbershop experience illustrates, recognizing the Beatles is not automatic. Just as Becker’s marijuana users had to learn to perceive the effects of weed,* listeners had to learn to distinguish the Beatles sound from other music. That wasn’t the explicit goal of the people who listened to Beatles songs over and over, but it was an important side effect.

As for defining what we are hearing as great, the influence of others is not nearly so evident as it was among Becker’s pot smokers. In the diffusion of popularity, it doesn’t seem like anyone is learning or teaching. People around us are grooving to the Beatles, and so are we. Besides, millions of others have pushed these songs to the top of the charts, confirming our judgment that this stuff is the best. Popularity cascades upon itself. The more that the music becomes popular, the more of it you hear. The more familiar it becomes, the better it sounds. The process is less like instruction, more like contagion.

In November of 1963, my social geography — living in my small town in the Japan Alps — had quarantined me from the emotions that flooded Americans when Kennedy was assassinated. I did feel what I would have felt if I had been in the US . (My 2013 post about that experience is here.)  Five months later in that barber shop, I was listening to the Beatles, but I had not yet become a Beatles listener.

* Becker was doing his research among musicians in Chicago in the late 1940s and early 50s. Marijuana back then had nothing like the potency of today’s cultivars. Yet even now, other more experienced users are important in showing the neophyte user how to ingest the drug and how to appreciate the effects. Maureen Dowd’s famous unaccompanied fling with edibles (here) is a negative case in point.