“Mad Men” – Speaking at the Wrong Time

June 26, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Mad Men” season closer on Sunday night sang reprises of its hit numbers –  liquor, cigarettes, adultery, politics (national and office), and even a bit of advertising.  Those plus that other “Mad Men” staple – language anachronisms.

The show is so careful about authenticity – every hat and hairdo, every dress and lipstick shade, suit and necktie, every piece of furniture (home and office), and of course the assumptions and ideas that were part of the culture of the 1960s.* It seems as though Matt Weiner, the show’s creator, has hired experts to fact check everything we see on the screen.  Why does this pursuit of historical accuracy not extend to language? 

On Sunday, one of the characters says that something “sounds like a plan.”  It may sound like a plan, but it does not at all sound like 1968. That phrase is very recent.  The script might as well have had a character pushing the envelope or throwing someone under the bus

Then, Don Draper changes his mind about moving to Los Angeles, after his wife has already arranged to continue her acting career there. Now Don tells her that he’ll stay in New York while she works in Hollywood.  “We’ll be bi-coastal,” he says.

Not in 1968, you won’t.  To check, I ran “bi-coastal” through Lexis-Nexis – all English language publications for the year 1968.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Lexis-Nexis doesn’t turn up bi-coastal until more than a decade after Draper uses it, when, in January 1980, the New York Times comments on the “new breed” of transcontinental commuters.  The Washington Post doesn’t have bi-coastal until mid-1982. 

I went to hear Matt Weiner speak two months ago.  In the Q & A, I was going to ask, “Do you deliberately put a couple of linguistic anachronisms in each episode just to drive old guys like me up the wall?”  But I didn’t.  It was right after the episode where Joan has a dinner reservation for Le Cirque six years before it existed, so Weiner already had enough troubles with time travel.  (Or as we say these days, he already “had enough on his plate.”  Funny, but one of the “Mad Men” characters used that same phrase back in the 1960s.**)

It turns out that Weiner does have a staff who check for historical authenticity.  It’s headed by Kathryn Allison Mann.  According to the LA Times,

Mann reviews each and every completed script to ensure that all language is period-appropriate. Any suspect words or phrases are checked against the Oxford English Dictionary, slang reference books and printed material from the era.
I wonder if anyone on Ms. Mann’s staff is old enough to have been an adult in the 1960s. 

* The characters are, of course, oblivious to the sexism and other attitudes that they take for granted but that practically leap off the screen to 21st century viewers.  See this earlier post.

** My first post about the language of “Mad Men” is here .

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