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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Monday, February 11, 2013

Linguistic anachronism in Downton Abbey

For a series that pays such exquisite attention to period detail in manners, clothing, and design, down to the very degrees of colour gradation in phases of mourning, Downton Abbey plays surprisingly fast and loose with the language. This is all the more surprising because doing research to find out whether a word existed at the time in question is much easier than researching fashion and interior decor: all you have to do is consult the Oxford English Dictionary online, which is available through most public libraries.
 Last night, Mr. Bates called Jimmy a "big girl's blouse", a British English term for a feeble or cowardly man. The OED's earliest quotation for this is from 1969. Hearing it used in the 1920s was as jarring for me as if Lady Mary had suddenly turned up dressed like this:

http://www.twiggylawson.co.uk/fashionpic3.gif For another Downton-inspired post, on the word "valet", please click here.
For more linguistic anachronisms in Downton, see this post.


  1. Interesting that in "Ruddigore" when Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd announces himself his servant sings, "And I, his loyal vallee-de-sham".

    There is also the British use of "nevvy" for nephew, which retains the v of the French neveu...

  2. In G&S's "Ruddigore" Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd's servant announces himself as "I, his loyal vallee-de-sham" which clings to a bit of the French.

    Related might be the old British "nevvy" for nephew, which retains the v of the French neveu.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.