Digital humanists like to talk about what insights about the past big data can bring. So in that spirit, let me talk about Downton Abbey for a minute. The show's popularity has led many nitpickers to draft up lists of mistakes. Language Loggers Mark Liberman and Ben Zimmer have looked at some idioms that don't belong for Language Log, NPR and the Boston Globe.) In the best British tradition, the Daily Mail even managed to cast the errors as a sort of scandal. But all of these have relied, so far as I can tell, on finding a phrase or two that sounds a bit off, and checking the online sources for earliest use. This resembles what historians do nowadays; go fishing in the online resources to confirm hypotheses, but never ever start from the digital sources. That would be, as the dowager countess, might say, untoward.
I lack such social graces. So I thought: why not just check every single line in the show for historical accuracy? Idioms are the most colorful examples, but the whole language is always changing. There must be dozens of mistakes no one else is noticing. Google has digitized so much of written language that I don't have to rely on my ear to find what sounds wrong; a computer can do that far faster and better. So I found some copies of the Downton Abbey scripts online, and fed every single two-word phrase through the Google Ngram database to see how characteristic of the English Language, c. 1917, Downton Abbey really is.
The results surprised me. There are, certainly, quite a few pure anachronisms. Asking for phrases that appear in no English-language books between 1912 and 1921 gives a list of 34 anachronistic phrases this season. Sorted from most to least common in contemporary books, we get a rather boring list:
 realistic prospect funding than specialist care pansystolic murmur  moment decision the rematch relax together basic tips  a pansystolic of randy be defeatist dress fittings  dedicated nurse wartime marriage point pretending fairly grand  want grandchildren friendships out shortages all when peacetime  liberal front heavens name staff luncheon can posture  major inheritance those logic fingerprinted or little daydream  very disfigured having pancakes taxing assignment rationing now  liar while unicorn if
Another 26 phrases do appear rarely in the 1910s, but are at least 100x as common today (sorted by biggest difference between the teens and the 1990s to least):
 black market the basics overall charge there anymore  feel loved work load most dedicated ganging up  gonna need first priority her homework our funding  you anymore bit carried hospital costs likely outcome  off limits contact her more traditional exercise classes  from scratch in overall current situation guest bedroom  you gonna
A few of these are just rare words, plausible hapax legomena in the time period. But others are egregious, howling mistakes. We see here several of the phrases Zimmer discusses ('those logic pills', 'the rematch','contact her' for 'get in touch with'). There are also some more obvious anachronisms ('fingerprint' as a verb, 'did her homework' as a metaphor for being prepared) and a few less recognizably modern phrasings like "realistic prospect" (which, when you think about it, is quite a mixed metaphor) and "dress fittings." Expanding it a bit reveals some more howlers: Lord Downton's complain that his family is "ganging up" on him (the OED has it as a 1925 American coinage); Lady Mary's concern about losing the "moral high ground" to Sybil (a creation of the 60s that didn't really take off until the early 1980s); a usage of the Americanism "cow pie" when a Briton would have said 'cow pat;' and several more. None of those sound as jarring, but they are equally inaccurate. (I particularly like 'cow pie'; we tend to think that rural language is eternal, but it can change as easily as city terms).
With the full list, we can see some broader patterns of error. There are some areas where writers persistently drop the ball. Through much of season 2, Downton Abbey is a hospital or convalescent home, and medical vocabulary presents a particularly problem. Branson escapes the draft because of a "mitral valve prolapse" (first use, c. 1965) causing a "pansystolic murmur" (c. 1953); both terms suggest St. Elsewhere more than the Great War. The doctor's helpers aren't trained in 'specialist care'; hardly their fault, since the phrase was never used before 1925. The household is relieved that Carson the butler did not suffer a 'heart attack'; but that phrase was about 50x rarer in 1917 (perhaps a coronary, like the one that nearly killed Roger Sterling in season 1 of Mad Men, would have been more appropriate?) and, so far as I can tell, only an 'acute heart attack' would have meant myocardial infarction to the crew at Downton.
Season 2's Great War setting opens the door for another sort of mistake: words from the Second World War showing up 20 years ahead of schedule. To most of us, the lingo from the wars is indistinguishable; but there are some major mistakes. One subplot involves Thomas setting up business selling goods on the black market; "there are shortages all around," he declares. He might as well be speaking Greek: the 'black market' doesn't emerge until 1941, and though businessmen (particular Americans) sometimes used 'shortages' as the opposite of 'surpluses,' it is so rare in British speech that it almost never appears in UK fiction from the period. "In short supply," also used in this subplot, was about 250 times as common during the second world war as during the first. Even the today ubiquitous ideas of 'wartime' and 'peacetime' aren't appropriate; Mrs. Bryant refers to a 'wartime marriage;' but the use of 'wartime' and 'peacetime' as adjectives didn't pick up in earnest until 1941.
But we can do more than just pick nits on idiomatic speech. ("Pick nits" is 1960, by the way). It lets us look more generally at what the show gets right and wrong about past language. Every episode has dozens of lines that are just slightly off, and it's in these that the patterns really look funny. In addition to the 60 phrases above, there are another 260 that are at least 10 times more common in the 1990s than in the 1910s. These arephrases like "at long last," "from scratch", and "act fast"--maybe a few could be spoken in the teens, but all of them together?
Some of these are extremely common. To help me find the words, I asked R to make a chart that looks like this to find the worst mistakes in every episode of the season. (This is last night's: click to enlarge):
they're all in my next post on the topic.]
Farther to the left means less common nowadays; higher up means more common today ('be defeatist' is next to 3; it's 10^3, or 1000x as common today) and below 0 means more common in 1917. Looking at these, the new words on the upper left jump out, but some more common words that are only overused 5 or 10 times jump out as well.
For example: Characters in Downton Abbey say "I must" 24 times, three times as often as they say "I need to." Books from the period, on the other hand, say "I must" three hundred times as often; going by the printed literature, the Abbey's residents should "need to" do something about once every ten seasons, not once an episode. Ben Zimmer pointed out that some characters say "I'm just saying" anachronistically, but it's not just that phrase: they use "just" to modify meaning far too much. Words like "just wrong," "just sucking," "just need" are frequent, and uncharacteristic. (They should be saying "only wrong," I think).
This is not to say that they get everything wrong. The writers tune their ears well enough to get quite a bit right. They know to say "sympathy with" rather than "sympathy for," and so on. They know to use "awfully" as an intensifier, and so on. We can find the shining examples of period language in Downton, too: all of these phrases were at least 6x as common in the teens as today:
 this war the trenches who shall  war has practically a so slight  old chap newspaper man civilised world  dressing station very feeble for luncheon  little chap jolly well stand well  wonderful what from Arras 1914 I  thither as before luncheon our chauffeur  soldier servant a plutocrat no livery  whole bally awfully cut tremendous disturbance  hereafter forever wee chap me enlist  bally lot hall boys our Arch  dressing gong seems jolly little waspish  no convalescence shining film beggared if
In all, the language in Downton is about 50-50; half is more common in 1995, half more common in 1917. In the abstract, that doesn't sound great to me, but we need a basis for comparison. Let's take another show: the beloved "Pride and Prejudice" adaptation from the nineties.
That band on the left are the completely new phrases from 1815 to 1995; a lot of language doesn't appear at all in books from Austen's time. Now, Pride and Prejudice has a lot of obstacles to overcome; the books are worse, a lot of occurrences of 'someone' will appear as 'fomeone' in the old OCR, and it's set 100 years earlier than Downton. But nonetheless, the center of that cloud is a little lower than Downton's. Of the 6 episodes, between 60 and 67% of the words are more common in 1815 than in 1995; for Downton, only about 50% are more common. That's because the BBC could steal lines from Austen that sounded authentic even without the writers having to think up phrases like "total want of" or "cordially wish." If you care only about gross anachronisms, Pride and Prejudice will sound worse than Downton because from time to time they added words that Austen didn't write; but if you care about historically accuracy overall, you'll get a much better experience of old-fashioned speech from the show that took from Austen.
For a script without a source base to crib from, though, Downton doesn't do so poorly. A couple episodes of Mad Men I checked were possibly worse [Ed.--Looking into it a little more, I take this back; they're probably better]; even great novelists do no better. Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" is one of the great historical novels in the public domain (written in 1921, set in the 1870s), but dialogue in it routinely uses phrases like "marked trend" and "shoe polish" that no one in the 1870s would have known. In fact, only 40% of its words are more common in the 1870s than the 1920s; even worse than Downton. Of course, they all sound old-fashioned to us now.
Do these mistakes really matter? Yes and no. Maybe the characters say it best:
ROBERT, EARL OF GRANTHAM You don't think she'd be happier with a more traditional set up?
Nothing seems out of order here, perhaps. But, "more traditional" is a profoundly untraditional way of describing things. Historians know that the "invention of tradition" was rampant in Victorian England; the practice of happily talking about "more traditional" and "less traditional" outcomes is even more recent. To a real Earl of Grantham, talking about tradition as a sliding scale would rather miss the point; either it's traditional or it's not.
But today, of course, those shades of tradition--sometimes right, sometimes wrong--exactly what the show is about. We think we can recapture it in little parts; that various characters in the past can stand in for us, and that we might behave just like they do.
This is the real weakness of Downton Abbey, I'd say. Not just the language but the sensibilities are obviously modern, easy for us to understand, and false to the reality of the past. (I admit I skipped large parts of the second season of Downton Abbey to watch Cheers, which gives a far more nuanced depiction of the way social class is used as in instrument of authority and liberation than Downton.) But to imagine yourself sophisticated, fighting prejudice and eating quaint food, Downton's just the thing.