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Monday, April 2, 2012

The Foreign Language of 'Mad Men'
The show is known for historical accuracy. But do the characters really talk like people from the '60s?
With Mad Men's return on Sunday comes the return of the paeans to the show's attention to period detail. By various reports, Matthew Weiner devours half-century old letters, dresses actors in period undergarments, and even throws out suspiciously attractive fruit to ensure that nothing dispels the perfect illusion of the 1960s.

As a historian, though, I'm particularly interested in the show's language. In my research, I've been struck again and again at just how profoundly language changes from decade to decade. New expressions, phrases, and meanings are constantly entering into English. How true to the jet age could Mad Men'sdialogue really be? The normal way to test things like this is to use personal expertise to notice a phrase that sounds wrong, and then to hit the reference books to confirm the hunch. This generally works for the most egregious mistakes: while watching Mad Men, lexicographers noticed the wrong edition of a dictionary, media types picked up on Joan Holloway's statement that "the medium is the message" in 1960, before McLuhan published, and the more historically minded noted the usage of "military-industrial complex"months before Eisenhower coined the phrase.

There's another approach that's less subtle, but far more comprehensive; check everything, whether it sounds inaccurate or not. Using digitized books, movie subtitles, and tools like the Google Ngram viewer (which was first developed in 2010 by the Harvard Cultural Observatory, where I have a fellowship this year), it's possible to write a computer program that looks at every single phrase to see if it really appeared in print in the 1960s. Doing so creates, essentially, an anachronism machine that ruthlessly seeks out and tags every potentially inaccurate line (of a certain length) in the script. Using a similar method, I was able to find dozens of mistakes in Downton Abbey; of course we all think Mad Men is better, but is it really?

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