The Language Anachronism That Nobody Notices

January 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The opening of “Bridge of Spies” shows us New York, 1957. Federal agents tail Rudolf Abel as he walks through the streets and now into the Broad Street subway station. Here is a screenshot.

Hollywood does this sort of thing so well. Every period detail is perfect – the cars, the clothes, the street signs and advertisements, the subway station signs, the shoeshine stand,* even the candy bars inside the candy machine though they are on screen for less than a second. When the Feds come to arrest Abel a few minutes later, his Brooklyn apartment breathes the same authenticity. Ditto his false teeth (Abel is just coming out of the bathroom in his underclothes). The script continues.

One of these two lines is an anachronism – the equivalent of having someone drive up in a Toyota. It’s “need to.” I’ve mentioned this before, but once I became sensitized to it, every time I now hear “need to,” the actor may as well have shouted it.

Before 1970, “need to” was not an imperative. We told people that they “had to” do something, or that they “should” or “ought to” do something. You’ve gotta remember, this is 1957.

This chart from a post in The Atlantic by Benjamin Schmidt about the language in “Mad Men” shows  the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected scripts all set in the 1960s. Some of them were written in the 60s, others in this century. The simple need/ought ratio is all you need to figure out which is which.

I checked a couple of those old scripts (“The Apartment,” “The Hustler” – both are great movies). The “need to” count is basically zero. And if Schmidt had used “have to” instead of “ought to” the differences would have been even more exaggerated.

My own speculation (here)  on why “need to” became so widely used starting in the 70s is that it was part of a general shift from a language of morality to a language of therapy. But I have no idea why the change went unnoticed. The lead scriptwriter on “Bridge of Spies,” Matt Charman, is only 37 years old. He grew up in the “need to” world. But the other writers, the Coen brothers, are in their sixties, and Spielberg, the director, is 70. They too were ignorant of the change from the language of their youth.

“Need to” appears fourteen times in the script. One of these lines manages to use it in tandem with yet another anachronism. Donovan (Tom Hanks), the American lawyer enlisted by the CIA to negotiate the spy exchange, is speaking with a Russian official.

“Conversation” – in the sense of a full exploration of issues and positions and options – is, I think, very recent. In 1957, governments may have had “discussions” or even “talks,” but they did not have conversations. 


* The shoeshine stand is on the platform where people stand waiting for their train. I wonder what happened when the train came in before the shoeshiner had finished. Of course, this is the Broad St. station, and on the BMT lines, there was probably plenty of time between trains. (And by the way, if anyone knows what year it was when the subway system finally stopped using the IRT, BMT, IND designations, please tell me.)

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