Oct 20 2011 9:18am

Historical Inaccuracy at Downton Abbey

Some word nerds in the UK have noticed that the characters on Downton Abbey use slang that didn’t originate until long after the time period the show is set in.

The editor of the Oxford English Dictionary said that some of the slips, the Daily Mail quotes, “felt quite wrong.” For example, Thomas uses the phrase, “get knotted,” which means “get lost” or “go to hell.” He also says he is “fed up seeing our lot get shafted.” (Other characters have used anachronistic language as well, so it’s not just Evil Thomas who’s being evil by leaping ahead, linguistically).

Most of us wouldn’t notice those slips, but there are other things that stick out like sore thumbs (the use of that idiom has been around since the mid-sixteenth century!).

What’s the most jarring anachronism you’ve noticed in a book, TV show, or movie?

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1. mochabean
Ooooooooooo, what a fun topic! Usually I don't get too upset by the occasional anachronism, but sometimes, if the book is unremittingly bad in all other particulars, they can really stand out. Most recent example I can think of was a purportedly "steampunk" vampire romance, Avalon Revisted, which Amazon pulled up as "like" Gail Carriager's wonderful Parasol Protecterate serires (Soulless, etc.) It wasn't. At all. So so very awful. But I do recall the characters saying things like "okay" and "have a seat" which seemed out of place. But the book was such a hot mess anyway, that this a minor quibble!
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
@mochabean--I don't notice too much language stuff, but I really hate it when a female historical character has a totally off-the-wall profession w/o it being explained. I once read about a female vet in a Regency, I think. That really bothered me, so much so I rolled my eyes and never finished the book.
3. Isobel Carr
I see lots of little errors in books (especially with the clothing!), but the most egregious error I’ve seen recently is a matter of proper address. In a book by a best selling author, the hero, a duke, is called "my lord" rather then "your grace" throughout. Galling. I’ve just discovered an error in my own work as well. Did you know the Dark Walk at Vauxhall was gone after the 1750s? I didn’t! Just found out looking at maps of the gardens in the VAUXHALL GARDENS: A HISTORY. *sigh* So much for my using it some 30 years later.
4. Hannah B.P.
A lot of times things that "seem wrong" aren't. For example to me a child calling their father "dad" sounds very modern. I associate it with post WWII but in fact it's been in use for centuries, it's just more common now. Language is slippery so like the experts were saying some of these things weren't recorded (written down generally) until later but that doesn't mean they weren't in vernacular use earlier. So historical fiction writers have to do a bit of estimating. I do some such writing myself and I research slang and expressions used and often can only approximate. One thing that was a definite slip up in the last episode was that Sybil said she thought Branson would have joined the Easter Rising rebellion "a year ago." By this point it is well into 1918 (it even was 1918 in the previous episode) and the Easter Rising was in March 1916. I wonder if this scene was originally supposed to occur in an earlier episode but was moved.
5. Hannah B.P.
April 1916 was the Easter Rising. In any case it was early 1916.
6. Corey
Another example is when Branson the chauffeur uses the expression "Well I'll be a monkey's uncle." That expression was popularized during the Scopes' Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.
7. not Bridget
From Punch, in the latter part of the 19th century:

Out came sundry comic Indians
Of the tribe of Kut-an-hack-um.
With the growling Downy Beaver,
With the valiant Monkey’s Uncle.

8. Hannah B.P.
This is not historical, except the history of Sybil's life. She was 18 when she had her coming out in 1914. That would have made her 20 in 1916 when S2 opened and therefore 23 in 1919. At the very least if her birthday was late, she would be 22. So why did Mary say she was 21?
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