BLOG POSTPODCAST EPISODE

Black Confederates on Hold for Mr. Draper


I recently discovered a blog—Prochronisms—dedicated to sniffing out anachronistic language first in the World War I–era television show Downton Abbey and now the just-concluded fifth season of Mad Men, which takes place in 1966. From what I can tell, this is not an attempt to scold television writers for their mistakes, but more to call attention to the way language has changed over the years without our even being aware of it.
In one episode of Mad Men, for instance, the writers have a character say that someone is “on hold.” This is not technically incorrect—hold buttons had existed since the 1930s—but such terminology may not have quite entered the language yet. Explains the blogger: “Just because there’s a hold button, doesn’t mean that everyone necessarily knows how to talk about it, how to use it, or how to abuse it.”
Then there’s the phrase, “Are you okay?”

This, like “off the line,” seems to be another verbal tic of [Mad Men creator] Matthew Weiner’s. It’s appeared 9 times this season, and several times in ever[y] season before. And the phrase “you okay” always appears in basically the same context. (For an exhaustive list, see below). That, as it happens, is more times than it appears in the entire Ngrams corpus in 1966. (About 27,000 books for that year). With this sort of purely verbal speech, it’s hard to be sure: but usage of “OK”,”O.K.”, and “okay” have all skyrocketed in recent years, and it seems plausible that using the word to ask after someone’s feelings or general state of mind is relatively out of whack with the 60s.

Wait, “Ngrams corpus”? What’s that? Turns out Google Books allows you to search for words and phrases during publication time periods. The tool is called Google Ngram, and the viewer allows you to see the results in graph form. So what the blogger is saying is that the phrase “Are you okay?” appeared more times on Mad Men this season than in every published, Google-scanned book from the year in which the show is set, 1966. Cool, right?
Time to take this tool for a spin. Let’s try the phrase “black Confederate.” Here’s a graph showing that, between the years 1900 and 1950, the phrase basically does not exist in published books:

Now here’s a graph showing the same phrase in published books between 1960 and 2000:

Remember that this tests only language (not concepts or existential realities) and only written language, and only written language as it appears in published books, and only books scanned by Google. But still.
IMAGES: Don Draper in the Wall Street Journal; the Call Director Telephone, 1958 model

DISCUSSION

2 thoughts

  1. I get what you are saying, but I do have to point out that the term “black” doesn’t come into wide usage until the 1960s. I think you could get somewhere if you found that “loyal slave,” “faithful servant,” and so forth declined as “black Confederate” increased in use.

  2. You’re right, Peter, and I think it would be an exaggeration to say that I was really up to anything particularly meaningful here. And “faithful servant” and “faithful slave” really were quite commonly used phrases, as a quick search of “The University Memorial” that I wrote about on Friday demonstrates.
    But isn’t “faithful slave” a slightly different concept from “black Confederate”? And why doesn’t that latter phrase come into serious play simultaneous with the wide usage of “black”? Instead, it happens years later. So what exactly happened around 1993?
    I’m guessing that a new way of thinking about an old idea — and thus, new language — is what happened.

RESPONSE

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