JOHN MCWHORTER SEPTEMBER 1, 2009
Last Sunday’s third episode of this season’s Mad Men was one of the best in the series on many levels, which was why for me, a frequent little problem with the show stood out more than ever. Namely, the show’s depiction of how people speak is less accurate than the loving exactitude with attire, cocktails, product labels, and the like.
The most glaring example in this episode was what seems to have gone down as a memorable line from Peggy Olson, erstwhile secretary who is slowly climbing the corporate ladder. “I’m in a good place right now,” she says, which is dramatically compelling – it makes Peggy seem “cool,” a proto-feminist on her way to our modern reality, in contrast to what a dowdy little twinkie she seemed to be when we first met her. But would that woman use that expression in 1963?
Not that the expression is as new as many may think. Locutions have a way of going further back than intuition would suggest, just as it is something of a surprise to find out that the first McDonald’s opened way back in 1948 (or the first Wendy’s in 1969). I, for one, first heard “I’m in a good place” from a person of a rather New Age-y frame of mind in September 1994, and that certainly wasn’t the month it originated.
However, would a secretary from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in a frilly collar have said “I’m in a good place right now” 31 years before that? Note, the issue is not a literal usage concerning physical location – some might think of the quotation from James 2, “And if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man ‘You sit over there’ ...”. Catholic Peggy may well have known that passage. However, its modern usage is metaphorical, having to do with spirit and development. It wasn’t something Marlo Thomas’ Ann-Marie on That Girl would have said, even when she was in a good place.
More generally, however, the writers at Mad Men seem to have an idea that in the early sixties, people spoke more “properly” than they do now. And they did, in formal and public settings. Until the late sixties, there was a sense that language was to be cossetted and dressed up in public in the same way that one wore deodorant. Think of the old gesture of clearing your throat before Making a Speech, the speech having been carefully written out and practiced, as opposed to today when we prefer looser “talks.”
Crucially, this sense included how people were depicted as speaking in movies. Even when the characters were speaking casually (i.e. most of the time), there was a sense that as a public performance, a film was to show people using language more “properly” than they actually would. Standards were looser for comics, of course. But, for instance, Letter to Three Wives has Linda Darnell growing up poor in a shabby flat. Yet while her mother speaks working-class American, Darnell has the flawless elocution of a dramatics student.
Sure, people can tilt their speech “upward” in line with social aspiration – but traces almost always remain, especially when people relax or are excited. The Darnell character in real life, hoping to get out of the tenements, would likely not have sounded just like her mother (just as Peggy Olson doesn’t sound like hers). However, she wouldn’t have sounded exactly like someone out of My Man Godfrey either. Speech habits – especially accent – are learned early and deeply ingrained. To speak as an adult with no trace of how you spoke at ten is as tough as learning a foreign language with no accent after the age of about 16.
The Mad Men characters are often like Linda Darnells in this regard – especially, for some reason, the younger ones. One senses that the creators see people talking like that in the movies of the period and suppose that this reflected messy old real life. But in reality, how people spoke casually was as unlike written language as it is now, and not just among stevedores. For example, in 1950 a linguist (in the classic Leave Your Language Alone) quoted a newspaper ad for “grammar lessons”:
How many of these frequent errors in English do YOU make? Do YOU say KEW-pon for KOO-pon, ad-ver-TISE-ment for ad-VER-tise-ment, or AD-ult for ad-ULT? Almost everybody makes these blunders in English: between you and I, it’s me, those kind of books.
So: the idea that there is something especially “slovenly” about how people talk “these days” is one that people had in 1963 as well (and long, long, long before). Which means that folks, just-folks, when going about on an informal basis did not sound like Disney announcers and Joan Crawfords (on the latter, her movie voice was sharply distinct from her casual one).
In Sunday’s Mad Men episode, therefore, when Jennifer Crane gets up and takes her husband over the Drapers’ table saying “I want to” see how they are, crisply pronouncing want separately from to, it’s false. That woman, even with her poise and aggressive social aspirations, would have said wanna just as we all do when we are not reading from text or laying down an answering mcahine message. The want to would have been all the more unlikely from someone who had had a drink or two (especially the stiff ones still ordinary on Mad Men as opposed to today’s Chardonnay).
Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell talks this way constantly, the idea being to convey that he is a high-WASP scion. However, people are people and especially, boys have always been boys. Would a real Pete Campbell, even knocking back highballs as is his wont, really casually talk like a Hardy Boy with the crisp, measured diction?
Relevant here would be how a similarly minded American aristocrat spoke in that same year of 1963. In recordings of John F. Kennedy speaking off-the-cuff with Robert McNamara in October of that year, not long after Pete and his wife did that nifty dance routine at that party, we hear someone talking the way, basically, we talk. Listen here.
Remember that the ah’s in words like “rah-ther” are his famous Boston accent, which one can still hear cabdrivers there using; it’s not Kennedy sounding British. And beyond that listen to how ordinary, unmeasured, Kennedy sounded – nothing of the want-t-to sort. He says “Yeah,” not “Yes,” and “...without makin’ a formal statement about it” rather than making.
I certainly understand that Mad Men is a confection, and on a certain level enjoy the characters’ aristocratic tones as an artifice just as we all enjoy the too-perfect costumes and saturated color. However, an artifice it is: when we read of producer Matthew Weiner and his crew attending to actors “getting the language right,” the “right” in question is not the same kind of “right” as concerns the toys and fabrics and magazine fonts.
Often, it’s “right” in the way that we like to think ordinary people spoke 50 years ago – sometimes including expressions unknown to them, but so deft that we can’t help putting them in their mouths.