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Television

I'm Just Sayin': There Are Anachronisms In 'Downton'

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 8:51 am

PBS's hit series Downton Abbey has been praised for its subtle and witty dialogue. But a few anachronisms have slipped into the characters' conversations, and spotting them has become a hobby for many fans.

Linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and language columnist for the Boston Globe, talked with NPR's Renee Montagne about snippets of dialogue that British people of the time would've been very unlikely to say.

"I'm just sayin'."
--Ethel, the maid, to Mrs. Patmore, the cook

"That expression, 'I'm just saying,' is a modern expression that we use to couch what we're saying so that the person doesn't take offense or isn't annoyed by what we're saying ... We hear that all the time now, but it's hard to find examples of it, really, before World War II. That stand-alone expression, 'I'm just saying,' is pretty modern and out of place in 1916."

"Sorry to keep you waiting, but we're going to have to step on it."
--Lord Grantham, to his chauffeur

" 'Step on it' is another Americanism. ... It was in use in the 1910s, but it really was unlikely to have been heard on the British side that early. There were chauffeur expressions being used to describe acceleration: 'Step on it,' 'Step on her,' 'Step on her tail,' ... Sort of imagining the pedal to be like the tail of an animal, like a cat that you would step on and it would jerk forward.

"Those were American expressions, and they would eventually get across the Atlantic, but to imagine that Lord Grantham was up on the latest American slang in 1917 strains the imagination just a bit."

"When push comes to shove, I'd rather do it myself."
--Mrs. Patmore, to the servant staff

"She would definitely not have been familiar with that expression. It does date to the late 19th century, but it was a strictly African-American expression for at least a few decades. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples back to 1898, but if you look through the early 20th century, all the examples that we can find of the expression 'when push comes to shove' come from African-American newspapers and other sources.

"It really isn't until after World War II or so that it spreads to more widespread usage. So it's extremely unlikely that Mrs. Patmore would've been familiar with that expression and have used it in 1919."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A recent headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion reads: "Watching Episode of 'Downton Abbey' Counts as Reading Book." So fans of the PBS masterpiece series chalked up a couple more books last night. And the second season of the series about a grand British estate and its inhabitants wraps up next Sunday. We won't spoil anything for you here.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We can tell you that a few anachronisms have made their way into the series, and spotting them has become a hobby for many fans. Joining us, as he does occasionally, is linguist Ben Zimmer. He's the executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and a language columnist for the Boston Globe.

Good morning.

BEN ZIMMER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, how would we welcome you appropriately if we were doing this interview in the England of, say, 1916?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ZIMMER: That's a good question. You know, I have to admit that I can't magically transport myself back to that time to know how people are speaking. It's much easier to take some dialogue that has been created for something like this and then try to see: Well, did they really say that? You know, test it be looking to see how far back expressions really go.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's hear an example.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

AMY NUTTALL: (As Ethel) I'm just saying.

LESLEY NICOL: (As Mrs. Patmore) And I'm just saying if you don't look out...

MONTAGNE: I'm just saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ZIMMER: Yeah. That was Ethel, the maid, saying I'm just saying to protect herself a little bit from the wrath of Mrs. Patmore, the cook. And that expression, I'm just saying, is a modern expression that we use to couch what we're saying so that the person doesn't take offense or isn't annoyed by what we're saying, and that you're just stating your personal opinion.

It's hard to find examples of it, really, before World War II. That stand-alone expression I'm just saying is pretty modern and out of place in 1916, when that episode takes place.

MONTAGNE: All right. Let's choose another one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

HUGH BONNEVILLE: (As Lord Grantham) Sorry to keep you waiting, but we're going to have to step on it.

ZIMMER: So that was Lord Grantham telling his chauffer that we're going to have to step on it. And step on it is another Americanism. It starts off as an American expression, and it was in use in the 1910s. There were chauffeur expressions being used to describe acceleration: Step on it, step on her, step on her tail - sort of imagining the pedal to be like the tail of an animal, like a cat that you would step on, and it would jerk forward.

Those were American expressions, and they would eventually get across the Atlantic. But to imagine that Lord Grantham was up on the latest American slang in 1917 strains the imagination just a bit.

MONTAGNE: That brings us to another expression that would not have crossed over in any likelihood. And that is this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

NICOL: (As Mrs. Patmore) When push comes to shove, I'd rather do it myself.

MONTAGNE: And that was Mrs. Patmore, the cook. Now, Ben, would she have said when push comes to shove?

ZIMMER: She would definitely not have been familiar with that expression. It does date to the late 19th century, but it was a strictly African-American expression for at least a few decades.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples back to 1898. But if you look through the early 20th century, all the examples that we can find of the expression when push comes to shove come from African-American newspapers and other sources. And it really isn't until after World War II or so that it spreads to more widespread usage. So it's extremely unlikely that Mrs. Patmore would've been familiar with that expression and have used it in 1919.

MONTAGNE: Ben Zimmer is the language columnist for the Boston Globe.

Thanks very much for joining us.

ZIMMER: Well, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And you can find more lines of historically questionable dialogue handpicked by Ben Zimmer from "Downton Abbey's" second season at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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