Say what? – anachronistic language in our favorite period dramas

Who doesn’t love a good period drama?  Whether it’s the classic movie “Gone with the Wind”…, or the more recent successes of “Lincoln” and “Downton Abbey”, westerners (Americans) love reliving the “good ol’ days” when everything seemed more simple; more, tidy.  While these shows are certainly entertaining, do we really get an accurate picture for how real individuals from those time periods would have spoken about and acted towards issues such as equality? Think about it:  we watch these programs about 19th and early 20th century societies, but we wrap them in a cozy, warm blanket of 21st century, post civil rights viewpoints.  carson

As this NPR story details, the key to discovering how we impress our 21st century morals onto the past is by paying close attention to the use of words and phrases in our favorite Pre-WWI drama series’.  Did Abolitionist Republicans during the time of Lincoln use the word “equality” the same way we think of the word today?  Most likely not.  Are the butlers and maids in Downton Abbey really struggling with their own feelings of homophobia?  Probably not, considering the notion of “being gay” as part of a person’s identity and not merely a sexual behavior, is an idea prominently attuned to the 20th century.

Although, I guess this could happen in reverse too.  Think about those 1960s and 70s movies about what “the future” will hold.  More often than not, modern versions of the future are nothing more than a stylized reflection of the present.  That is of course unless aliens and superhuman’s decided to adopt from us such revolutionary styles as “the afro” and “polyester wear”.

The point is, try as we might to recreate the past, or project the future, we are always imposing upon it our own modern notions of right, wrong, and what outfit will make this character look most sexy?


Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

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