Language on TV

Fun with Anachronisms

This post is in response to the NPR.org story about anachronisms used in Downton Abbey (yes, I’m among the throng of enthusiastic fans). A link to the audio can be found in the story above, and I highly recommend listening to it as well as reading it.

The piece of this story I want to address is not the anachronisms used, but why using anachronisms isn’t always a bad thing. Anachronisms, or objects/people/phrases that are used in a time period that isn’t historically accurate, are not uncommon. In fact, when I saw this article posted on a friend’s Facebook Wall, I commented that Shakespeare is well known for using anachronisms (clocks in Julius Caesar is the first example that comes to mind).

So why are anachronisms used? I have two thoughts on this:

1. People (and in this case, screenwriters) may not be aware that the phrase they want to use didn’t exist in the time period for which they’re writing. We all know that language is always changing, and slang terms move in an out of style, but it’s easy to be aware of those that occur in our own lifetime, and harder to know where older ones got their start. It’s hard to imagine a phase like “I’m just saying” not existing, or that no one had ever uttered that string of words together at some point before it became the combination phrase/meaning that we think of today.

2. Anachronisms are for the audience, not the characters. Going back to the Julius Caesar reference, think of how much more complicated it would have been for Shakespeare to describe the time based on historically accurate means of time-measurement. Instead, a single mention of a clock bell chiming immediately sends a message to the audience that they recognize without really thinking about it. And if Shakespeare HAD been historically correct, that’s no guarantee that his audience would have known what he was talking about. I’m sure the screenwriters of Downton Abbey, if given a choice, would prefer to use a modern phrase that immediately invokes a commonly understood meaning in the majority of their audience over a historically accurate one that required their viewer to pull out their laptop and look it up, taking them away from the story on the screen.

 

So while I applaud the various individuals who are using the anachronisms in historical shows to learn more about the history of English phrases, I would encourage everyone to view them as they would view “Easter Eggs” on dvd’s: hidden gems that are there if you know where to look and take the time to investigate. And in the meantime, let anachronisms do what they do best: cut to the chase.

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