A Corfiot Complaint.

My wife and I recently watched the first episode of the new PBS Masterpiece series The Durrells in Corfu and thoroughly enjoyed it; it is, as this review says, delightful, and it makes a very pleasant and undemanding way to finish an evening. But I do have one complaint I have to get off my chest. They distort historical fact in a number of ways (e.g., the writing son Lawrence was actually married when the family relocated to Corfu), but I can accept such distortions in the name of enjoyable television. What I can’t accept is that when daughter Margo is chided for wearing a two-piece bathing suit, it is called a “bikini.” Look, I’m not a fanatic for period usage in historical drama; I recognize there are more important things than making sure every word and phrase in the script is attested for the period (though I do enjoy it when they make the effort). But come on, I thought every schoolchild knew that, to quote Wikipedia, the bikini was so named in 1946, “from the Bikini Atoll, where post-war testing on the atomic bomb was happening.” It was so jarring to have the word used by people supposedly living in 1935 it threw me right out of the story for a while. (If anyone’s interested in the geographical name Bikini itself, we discussed it back in 2005; the thread is worth a visit.)

Comments

  1. I agree. Jarring. Takes me right out of the story, careless and needlessly so.

    Which is why I can’t watch most medical shows, I start throwing things at the screen and my husband can’t see…

  2. A bikini is not just any two-piece suit, if I’m not mistaken. More like a three-piece, with a low-cut bottom piece. I haven’t seen the Durrells video; was Margo really wearing a minimalist post-war style bathing suit?

    There are historical consultants for that sort of thing, and where you don’t use them, it shows. I suspect that they skipped on having a language historical consultant for the script.

    As an aside, I loved the movie The Artist, but its use of common digital typefaces and digital typesetting for the intertitles was almost too jarring to be ignored.

    (P.S. I can’t blame you if you wrote this just so you can use the word “Corfiot”.)

  3. I have to confess to an intense dislike of portmanteau words for other kinds of women’s swimsuits that take part of “bikini.” I’m hoping the term “tankini” will not stick around.

  4. -e.g., the writing son Lawrence was actually married when the family relocated to Corfu

    That’s Gerald Durrell’s fault. He wrote his supposedly autobiographical books completely omitting the fact of his older brother Lawrence’s marriage and without a single mention of his wife (who lived together with them on Corfu for four years)

    Perhaps some complicated family drama explains this.

  5. Is there a database of the known “age” of words (first known mentions)? The OED, I know, but something databasey and free?

  6. Serendipity has brought me a link to http://www.etymonline.com/ already this morning – no idea how good it is or if it’s anything like what you’re looking for!

  7. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    “The writing Durrell” jarred me–Gerald wrote many books, which I read most of as a child and adored–mostly about adventures as an animal collector for zoos (before he got into conservation). I could never get into Lawrence’s stuff.

  8. (P.S. I can’t blame you if you wrote this just so you can use the word “Corfiot”.)

    That was, I confess, an inducement.

    “The writing Durrell” jarred me–Gerald wrote many books, which I read most of as a child and adored

    Mea culpa! You are, of course, absolutely right, and my own brothers read and loved those books — I can still see one of the covers in my mind’s eye — but I never did, whereas I’ve read the Alexandria Quartet several times, so I think of him as “the writer.”

  9. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    To be fair, Gerald always thought of Lawrence as “the writer,” too. There’s quite a lot of self-deprecation in Gerald Durrell’s writing.

  10. Gerald’s books are written from his point of view as an animal-obsessed child and the rest of the family are treated mostly as colourful backdrops. He doesn’t really address things like his mother’s emotional state. You can see why he might have left out the sister-in-law because she and Lawrence only lived with the family for a few months and then got their own place. Lawrence was already a published author before they went to Corfu.

    Lawrence also wrote about his time on Corfu, but hardly mentions the family at all.

    The show supposedly deals with things in more emotional depth than you would get from Gerald, whose books were adapted for television a few years back. But I don’t know where this is supposed to come from. Is it just something that the writers came up with on their own?

    I did enjoy the show, although “bikini” was annoying.

    People who don’t care for Lawrence’s novels might enjoy Reflections on a Marine Venus describing his life on Rhodes at the tail end of WWII.

  11. It’s not even as though “bikini” solved any sort of problem; they could perfectly well have gone with “two-piece” or “skimpy” or “revealing” or any of a number of other terms. It’s just straight-out poking their thumb in the discerning viewer’s eye.

  12. It’s just so common a name that lots of people would never even guess that it’s not a venerable English word. I met at least one person who thought it was originally a brand name, rather than the name of the ill-fated island where the demon core had its final revelation.

  13. The 1930s two-piece was a voluminous top and a pair of swim shorts that covered the navel and went well down the thighs. Maybe two inches were exposed, and that was daring. The bikini was a scandal – no fashion model would wear it, and it was originally modeled by a stripper.

  14. I had thought so too, but that turns out to be wrong; from the Wikipedia article linked in the post:

    By the 1930s, necklines plunged at the back, sleeves disappeared and sides were cut away and tightened. With the development of new clothing materials, particularly latex and nylon, through the 1930s swimsuits gradually began hugging the body, with shoulder straps that could be lowered for tanning. Women’s swimwear of the 1930s and 1940s incorporated increasing degrees of midriff exposure. Coco Chanel made suntans fashionable, and in 1932 French designer Madeleine Vionnet offered an exposed midriff in an evening gown. They were seen a year later in Gold Diggers of 1933. The Busby Berkeley film Footlight Parade of 1932 showcases aquachoreography that featured bikinis. Dorothy Lamour’s The Hurricane (1937) also showed two-piece bathing suits.

    The 1934 film, Fashions of 1934 featured chorus girls wearing two-piece outfits which look identical to modern bikinis.

  15. The typical two-piece bathing suit of the 1930s covered a lot more than the bikini of later days.

    However some film costumes of the 1920s were more similar. Or even earlier. There are examples from the pre-Code 1930s as well.

    The difference with bikinis is that women actually started wearing them to the beach.

  16. The typical two-piece bathing suit of the 1930s covered a lot more than the bikini of later days.

    Typical, sure, but Margo wants to be daring, and she succeeds.

  17. It may be hard to understand in the age of bikini waxes, but the scandal in 1946 clearly was that the navel was exposed.

    On the other hand I was surprised to see that the original bikini had string sides and how narrow the cut was — I do remember the renewed scandal when the tanga came out in about 1974, and my impression then was that it was the narrow cut that shocked. The bikinis that were seen on beaches in the early seventies had actual side panels.

  18. The navel, yes, but even more so the buttocks.
    The websites that claim that the Busby Berkeley musical “Fashions of 1934” featured true bikini-style swimsuits have no pictures, as far as I can find.
    But you can see the “Fashions of 1934” swimsuits here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=druwpau_LcM
    and (1) they are not intended to be real swimming costumes – they are worn by fan-dancers (like a vaudeville strip show), and (2) you can get a clear view only by stopping the action (which a movie audience couldn’t do) and (3) even so, the buttocks are completely covered.

  19. Good points all.

  20. It’s my legal training.

  21. @Bloix: It’s really weird how what one gets to know about other Internet commenters who are otherwise total strangers. I remember learning that you were a lawyer in a Language Log comment thread several years ago. I’ve also noticed you commenting at Lawyers, Guns, and Money a few time recently. (I read that site, but I don’t comment there, myself.)

  22. I recognize you, Brett, assuming you’re the Brett who comments at Crooked Timber.

  23. @Bloix: Hah, no that’s not me, actually. I gave up reading Crooked Timber years ago.

  24. Me too, though I’m not sure why.

  25. I’m still reading CT fairly often, but I don’t think I’ve commented in a long time. The memorable Brett from there was a conservative who often ended up being blocked, but he had a last name. The surnameless one is presumably a different person.

  26. As I posted that, I realized that I couldn’t remember why I stopped reading CT either. I might or might not have posted comments there way back when, but I’m sure it wasn’t enough to make me memorable.

  27. I googled “why I stopped reading crooked timber”* and the first result was:


    Crooked Timber comments: a big change
    by CHRIS BERTRAM on OCTOBER 19, 2016
    We Timberites have been chatting amongst ourselves about our comments threads. Recently, and perhaps even not so recently, our threads have been dominated by a few commenters who are rude, abusive and dismissive to one another and others. This creates an environment where other commenters get squeezed out and where many of us feel reluctant to post on the blog because it isn’t fun exposing yourself to such gratuitous hostility and because housekeeping comment threads (and arguing about housekeeping decisions) is frankly exhausting.

    * this is a recently developed habit of mine – asking intelligent questions from google. more often than not, the results are pretty intelligent, not dumb at all. Could be the first signs of emerging strong AI…

  28. Recently, and perhaps even not so recently, our threads have been dominated by a few commenters who are rude, abusive and dismissive to one another and others. This creates an environment where other commenters get squeezed out and where many of us feel reluctant to post on the blog because it isn’t fun exposing yourself to such gratuitous hostility and because housekeeping comment threads (and arguing about housekeeping decisions) is frankly exhausting.

    That could be why! (Also, the idea of Google developing strong AI is terrifying.)

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