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

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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."

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