Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

A Linguist Listens to “Mad Men”

with 3 comments

madmen1After a post focusing on advertising and marketing, it’s nice to have a  segue back into linguistics. In the comments from that post, one person recommended checking out the show “Mad Men.” Though I’ve never seen it, it apparently centers around advertising in the 1960s and comes highly recommended. Then I found this article from The New Republic. Author and linguist John McWhorter questions whether the speech patterns affected by the characters in “Mad Men” are really genuine, and whether people really talked the way we think they talked fifty years ago.

Written by Nathanael Green

September 8, 2009 at 6:59 am

3 Responses

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  1. It’s funny, but I just watched the first episode of season 3 last night and I was thinking much along the same lines as McWhorter. One line in particular was so annoying to me that I almost stopped watching the show. Since it’s not a spoiler I can more or less quote it–the mother refers wryly to their eight or nine year old daughter as their “lesbian in the making” because she uses a hammer. This seemed such an improbable line as to be absurd. Whatever worries mothers had about their daughters’ gender orientations in those days, they would not have referred to them as lesbians at that age. She would very likely have called her a tomboy, although frankly, the way the daughter is portrayed in any other episode, even that would have been a stretch.

    I think the reason it bothered me is that it seemed such an extreme anachronism that it undermined the whole believability factor of the show–I don’t quite trust the writers to have a feel for the era as a result. McWhorter’s “I’m in a good place now” example is a less charged instance of the same problem.


    September 8, 2009 at 5:43 pm

  2. Interesting. I’m almost through Season 2, and I haven’t noticed too too many anachronisms. Perhaps the creator has been playing, rather well, on my preconceived notions about the period, so I don’t tend to question the dialogue all that much. I do think the formal nature of the language on the show belies the hollowness that often underlies what is being said by the characters well.

    Brian O'Rourke

    September 9, 2009 at 8:01 am

  3. Brian, I hadn’t had cause to question the show on it’s dialogue until now, but you know how once you open that door, everything seems suspect.

    I think the hollowness and artificiality of the lives they are trying to portray may call authenticity into question more often than on most standard TV shows.


    September 10, 2009 at 11:45 pm

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