“Mad Men” Language – Ahead of Its Time

March 28, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men,” was on “Fresh Air” yesterday talking about the new season. June of 1966 as the show opens.  Civil rights demonstrators are in the street.  Things are changing, Weiner says – hair styles, clothes, mores.  And
, he says The language is becoming more modern.”

Maybe too modern.  I noticed the following anachronisms:

1.  Speaking of airline accounts, one of the ad men says
The American Airlines thing isn’t happening. 
The first three words are all right.  But thing (maybe) and isn’t happening (certainly) sound wrong, at least to my ear.
2.  I’m less sure of other advertising terms.  There is a reference to
niche companies and a key demographic
I suspect that these terms come later in the evolution of marketing strategies and language.

3.  Joan’s mother is trying to tell Joan what to do regarding work and family (Joan has a newborn).  The mother refers to her own decision in similar circumstances.  Joan says acerbically 
And how did that work out for you?
This sarcastic phrase is much more recent.  In 2010, Sarah Palin could say, Hows the hope-y change-y thing working out for you?” It was effective and funny not just because of the idea but because the language was fresh, not something that had been around for fifty years. Note also Palins use of thing to make little of something. (I mentioned this linguistic trick in a footnote to a post (here) on the Anti Asian rant in the library,” where the ranter refers to the tsunami thing.”)

4.  Another character uses “Plus” to begin a sentence.  I don’t think that this usage came into fashion until decades later. Plus, it’s grammatically questionable.

5.  Finally the most glaring anachronism: Peggy is pitching her ad for Heinz canned beans to the client.  Peggy describes the ad – dancing beans pirouetting, then the can seen from the top, and finally
We cut to the front, the iconic label.
No, no, no.  In 1966, nothing was iconic.  There were no icons except maybe the statues in Orthodox churches, which rarely came into the conversation.  If icon was heard at all, it  was more likely as part of the word iconoclast

I’m sure that Matthew Weiner insists that every piece of clothing, every automobile, sofa, and refrigerator, every can of beans that appears on the show be historically accurate.  He probably hires experts to make sure that people are not brushing their teeth with some toothpaste that wasnt on the market until 1980.  Why is he less meticulous about the language in the scripts he writes?

UPDATE:  I wrote this blog using only my own sense of what language was like in 1966.  I did no research.  Now I find that others have also commented on anachronisms in the show.  Benjamin Schmidt in The Atlantic does not mention any of the terms that I noted, but he did pick up others
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.
Most interesting and least visible (at least to me) is the use of “need to.”  In the 1960s, people were more likely to use “ought to.”   “You need to do something about that account.” (I am making up this example, but it does sound like something Don Draper might have told someone.)  The example Schmidt uses is a real one from Season Two:  “Tell Jimmy I need to talk to him.”  In the real 1960s, “ought to.”

Schmidt adds that the difference is significant.  Need implies a focus on the self.  Instead of the general moral codes of ought, we now have the language of personal needs. Schmidt provides some systematic evidence:

( Click on the graph for a larger view.)

UPDATE 2: Philip Cohen, in an unpublished comment on this post, went to Google Ngrams and entered “that work out for you.”  It remains flat through the Mad Men 60s, then rises in the late 70s.  The rise in “that working out for you” comes even later, in the mid-90s. 

Following Philip’s lead, I tried the other terms in this post with similar results.  “Isn’t happening” and “iconic” appeared in the late-60s with less than 1/15th the frequency that they do today.  “Niche company” and “niche marketing” are virtually 0 until the mid-80s.  “Key demographic” starts its rise only a few years before that.  Unfortunately, I cannot figure out how to search for “plus” as the start of an independent clause.  Lexis-Nexis searches for “niche marketing” and “key demographic” come up empty for the 1960s.  Even niche and demographic are rare.


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PCM said...

I also think there's an accent to the past that most people don't realize. People talked different two (and more) generations ago. And that on top of regional differences.

Jay Livingston said...

It would be interesting to hear "real" 1966 ad people talking. As for regional accents, that's one thing that bothered me about "The Wire." None of the (white) characters has a Baltimore accent. They all pronounce on for example as though it's one syllable rather than two or three.