Yo, Does ‘Downton Abbey’ Diss the Language of Yesteryear?

'Downton Abbey'

While Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess may not be addressing other characters as “dude” on Downton Abbey, are she and the other characters on the hit British TV series still speaking out of turn? More specifically, are they speaking as if they lived more in the 21st century rather than shortly after the turn of the 19th?

Yes, English students, it’s time for… anachronism watch.

Linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus blog and a columnist on language for the Boston Globe, has posted a video highlighting words and phrases spoken by characters in Season Two of the Emmy-winning drama airing on PBS that seem more au courant than World War One-era.

He points out, for example, that when Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) instructs his chauffer “to step on it,” Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and his writers may be getting ahead of themselves.

“It’s possible to dig up examples of step on it from the 1910s as automotive slang for ‘go fast; step on the accelerator,’ but only in U.S. sources,” writes Zimmer. “Step on her and step on her tail were also possibilities at the time. But it’s hard to believe that Lord Grantham would be up on the latest American slang (despite having an American wife!), well before this expression became common in the U.K.”

Here’s Zimmer’s video (*spoiler alert* – it contains scenes near the end from episodes still to air on PBS this Sunday’s (February 12) show:

To read Zimmer’s full column explaining what’s anachronistic about each snippet of dialogue, click here:

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Does it bother you if Downtown Abbey characters verbally time-travel?

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