Ever since I wrote an On Language column for the New York Times Magazine about the authenticity of the dialogue on the AMC series "Mad Men," my inbox has been full of questions about words and phrases that have appeared on the show. The most recent episode, set in early 1965, was particularly rich in expressions that set off people's linguistic radar. Here's a look at four questionable examples from the episode.
"Mad Men" revolves around the office of a Madison Avenue ad agency called Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Last Sunday's installment, entitled "The Rejected," was the fourth episode of the fourth season, and by now the show's chronology is up to February 1965. (A reference to the assassination of Malcolm X helps pinpoint the date.) Certainly much in American society was changing rapidly at the time, including the language. But were these lines of dialogue right for the period?
"CFO at Corning."
That's Harry Crane's description of Ken Cosgrove's soon-to-be father-in-law. A Seattle P-I blogger wonders, "Were there CFOs in '65? Doesn't seem right." The position of "chief financial officer" existed in some companies of that era — see, for instance, this ad for a job at Price Waterhouse from July 1963, or this article from August 1965 about a management study called "Profile of a Chief Financial Officer." Despite the fact that there were some executives called "chief financial officers," that doesn't mean that the initialism CFO would have come trippingly off the tongue for Harry. In the databases of newspapers, magazines, and books that I checked, I could find no reference to CFOs before the early 1970s. When the firm that did the 1965 study, Heidrick & Struggles, did a 1971 followup, news reports shortened the title to CFO.
"Worst case, Kenny'll brag too much and you can steal a client from him."
Another line from Harry, prefaced by the words "Worst case..." The Oxford English Dictionary dates the adjective phrase worst-case, meaning "that is or pertains to the worst of a number of possibilities," to 1964, in a book about electrical interference describing "a worst-case analysis technique." It's possible to push that back a bit earlier, as in this 1962 ad from Bendix seeking reliability engineers with experience in "worst-case analysis." But that's technical jargon, unlikely to have been in common use. It wasn't until the early '70s that the phrase "worst-case scenario" began appearing, laying the groundwork for the shorthand use of "Worst case..." I haven't found any examples of this type of introductory "Worst case..." before the 1980s.
"Your problem is not my problem. And honestly you should just get over it."
In Peggy Olsen's dismissal of Don Draper's teary secretary Allison, her "get over it" exhortation struck some as a bit too modern. The use of the phrasal verb "get over (something)" is old enough — the OED has it from 1712 with the relevant meaning "to recover from (a shock, injury, illness, etc.)." (The shock that Allison is being told to recover from involves her one-night stand with Don, and Don's subsequent cold treatment of her.) There are plenty of examples in literature from the '60s of expressions like "You'll get over it" or "I can't get over it." The blunt command to "just get over it" is a bit rarer, but it does show up occasionally in sources from the mid-'60s. This one is probably OK.
"Can't believe that guy's married to her. I would get her so pregnant."
Joey Baird, the young freelance artist who does work for SCDP, makes this snide remark on hearing news that Pete Campbell's wife Trudy is pregnant. A commenter on the "Mad Men" blog Basket of Kisses cringed at how anachronistic the "so pregnant" part sounded to her. The changing usage of the adverb so came up in my earlier roundup of questionable lines from the show. From my On Language column:
[Show creator Matthew Weiner] defends Joan's year-end valedictory, "1960, I am so over you," by pointing to the Cole Porter song "So in Love" from "Kiss Me, Kate." Scholars of semantics might disagree, seeing a nuance between Porter's use of the adverb so, which quantifies the extent to which the character is in love, and the later Generation X-style spin on the word as an intensifier meaning "extremely" or "completely" without any comparison of relative degree.
Is Joey's line another example of anachronistic GenX so? It would seem that way, since pregnant isn't an adjective that lends itself to relative comparison: you either are pregnant or you aren't. Then again, pregnant doesn't usually get modified by adverbs like really or extremely either (except in jest), so this would be a bit unusual even in the later Generation X-style usage of so as a general intensifier. Joey's making a lascivious joke at Trudy's expense, obviously, with "get her pregnant" intended to have an earthier reading. The so adds emphasis to the joke, a type of emphasis that I don't think would have been available before the shift in so that began in the '80s. (Others disagree, however.)
Finally, in good news for fans of "Mad Men" verisimilitude, I have an update on one of the questionable lines I discussed in the On Language column. I said that Matthew Weiner "still regrets allowing the character Joan to say 'The medium is the message' in the first season [set in 1960], four years before Marshall McLuhan introduced the dictum in print." Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, wrote a letter to the editor explaining that McLuhan published an article entitled "The Medium Is the Message" in the Summer 1960 issue of the journal Forum. So was Joan savvy enough to be reading Forum? Who knows? Maybe it's time for all of us nitpickers to just get over it!
Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer