DOWNTON ANACHRONISMS.

My wife and I are as hooked on Downton Abbey as everyone else (in fact, we just got the DVDs of the first two seasons so we can see the original U.K. versions and watch them whenever we want), so I’ve been interested to see the recent spate of investigations into the language used. Ben Zimmer has a post at Visual Thesaurus listing “lines that seem a bit questionable” and “assessing their accuracy for the time period”; Ben Schmidt at Sapping Attention (“Digital Humanities: Using tools from the 1990s to answer questions from the 1960s about 19th century America”) has a post with a similar goal but a more comprehensive approach:

So I thought: why not just check every single line in the show for historical accuracy? Idioms are the most colorful examples, but the whole language is always changing. There must be dozens of mistakes no one else is noticing. Google has digitized so much of written language that I don’t have to rely on my ear to find what sounds wrong; a computer can do that far faster and better. So I found some copies of the Downton Abbey scripts online, and fed every single two-word phrase through the Google Ngram database to see how characteristic of the English Language, c. 1917, Downton Abbey really is.

He finds some “egregious, howling mistakes,” and the detailed discussion is quite fascinating. Finally, Mark Liberman at the Log investigates “Just sayin’”. It’s really very hard to get period dialog right, though that’s no excuse for “logic pills” or “get knotted.”

Comments

  1. There’s no real need to get period dialogue right, you just need to get it plausible. And sometimes you do need to change things because an authentic expression would now be misunderstood.
    Still, there are some real howlers. And still it remains very watchable.

  2. Well, I’ll repeat what I said here before. An English-language novel set in Russia doesn’t have dialogue in Russian, though it may have a certain amount of Russian translationese to give the feel of the dialogue being in Russian when it’s not. And since the past is another country, the same rules apply there: a film set in 1918 does not have to have 1918-English dialogue, any more than a film set in 1518 does.

  3. Ben Schmidt refers to “the writers” both for Downton and for the 90s Pride & Prejudice. In each case there was (as far as I know) a writer.

  4. As I said in a comment I left over at Sapping Attention, I’d love to see that kind of statistical analysis done on Upstairs, Downstairs.
    On the one hand, there was a lower expectation for period accuracy in the 70s, and fewer mechanisms to check for anachronisms. On the other hand, I be very surprised to find “I’m just saying” showing up in Upstairs, Downstairs.

  5. des von bladet says:

    When Mrs von B is watching Jane Austen’s Frockwatch Presents… (“costume dramas”) I generally assume they are rejected Dr Who scripts which hinge on the Tardis being irreparably broken. Except, presumably, for the mildly telepathic translation engine, which would at least account for any non-period usages as John Cowan suggests.

  6. I was quite surprised when Kamuk in Season One says “Istanbul” instead of Constantinople.

  7. We enjoyed Downton Abbey but as for accuracy, forget it, it’s not about that. I liked John Crace’s comment in the Guardian before Christmas: you could almost hear Fellowes rustling through the Ladybird book of history looking for plotlines.
    I read somewhere that Lord Carnarvon was hard up (in the landowner’s cashflow sense of ‘hard up’) when he inherited Highclere, and that a rich neighbour, Andrew Lloyd Webber, had even offered to take the place off his hands if he couldn’t afford it. Happily, the Carnarvons have done all right, thanks to the telly: the Highclere website has been pretty much turned over to Downton, although I still remember Highclere showing up as the home of Madeline Bassett in Jeeves & Wooster, with Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie. I thought at the time it was too grand a house for the Bassetts. I’ve never liked Highclere’s biaxial symmetry, it looks pretty much the same on all four sides (in theory architects should only charge half price for bilateral symmetry and only 25% of their normal fee for biaxial symmetry, but it’s not going to happen).
    If you’re looking for anachronisms, why ‘Abbey’? It doesn’t look anything like an abbey. Surely after what Henry VIII did to them an abbey should be crumbling, or at least look slightly more beaten-up and medieval as in this recent adaptation of Northanger Abbey. Highclere’s a Victorian pseudo-Jacobean pile, and if Julian Ffellowes wanted to use it he ought really to have called Downton Abbey ‘Totleigh Towers’.

  8. What I think is exciting about Ben Schmidt’s piece is that it proves we now have some powerful tools to enable narrative about the past that is NOT anachronistic. (As others have pointed out, though, the important anachronisms lie not in the dialogue but in the characters’ behaviour and the cultural assumptions encoded in the plotlines.)
    Why exactly anyone would want to write a perfectly non-anachronistic narrative I don’t know. (Excuse to re-read “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”, maybe.) It would be interesting to find out. Certainly, ever since Scott, we’ve known about the marvellous fructive potential of a persuasive illusion of historical narrative.

  9. “I was quite surprised when Kamuk in Season One says “Istanbul” instead of Constantinople.” He says it, I’d think, so that the modern audience knows where he’s talking about. Similarly, they talk about the Turkish Embassy and Turkish Ambassador, which might well be anachronistic too. The Ottoman Embassy? The Ambassador from the Sublime Porte? There’s not a lot of point being historically accurate if you leave much of your audience baffled. Though, mind you, I’d think people said “the Austrian ambassador” rather than whatever his title really was. Or, come to that, “the American ambassador”.

  10. I just read yesterday someone writing in a letter “Very good news about Turkey”, capitulating at the end of WW1. I suppose this doesn’t count until I can remember the details. I agree with your earlier comment about ‘writers’, though dearie. It’s as if everything is done by teams.

  11. @AJPC: in our house we refer to the show as “Dog’s Bottom”.

  12. Also the cat’s pyjamas. Forget my earlier comment about “Abbey”. Woburn Abbey, the duke of Bedford’s house, is nothing like a proper abbey.

  13. I was quite surprised when Kamuk in Season One says “Istanbul” instead of Constantinople.
    Well, he was an actual Turk, after all, and Turks have called the city Istanbul for centuries.

  14. There’s no real need to get period dialogue right, you just need to get it plausible.
    Which means there are two categories of anachronisms: those that don’t affect the enjoyment of anyone but pedants who have spent years immersed in Edwardian culture and literature (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and howlers like “just sayin’.” The former are fun to investigate (for pedants who enjoy pointless linguistic investigations, like yours truly) but there’s no point complaining about them; the latter should have been avoided because they are distracting.

  15. Actually the biggest anachronism isn’t the speech it’s the lack of understanding of the class and age divisions. Anyone who’s read class-related novels from the approximate period – from Love In A Cold Climate to Lady Chatterley’s Lover – ought to see this. It’s not just that they’re always having parties for the servants and marrying them, in particular I find the earl far too nice to everybody. His attitude is wrong: too wet, not enough hatred.

  16. I meant The Pursuit of Love.

  17. Did you see Saturday Night Live’s parody? I think it was 2 weeks ago. It was a modern teen’s review, and he kept calling it “Downtown Abbey”.
    So I wonder when the term “downtown” came into use?

  18. Crown: Woburn Abbey was pretty much rebuilt from scratch in 1744, and then half of the resulting building was demolished in the late 1940s (at which point the other half was derelict). If it makes you feel better, assume the actual abbey at Downton is a large heap of stones somewhere on the home farm, and the current residence, like Highclere, was constructed 1838-78.
    Stephen: Noblesse oblige, meaning in this case that those of us who have OED access should look things up for those who don’t. The OED2 says that downtown is “orig. U.S. and chiefly N. Amer.”: the first quotation is from 1835, though it was obviously current before that. (It’s attributed to a letter by “T. Gray”, which obviously cannot be the poet, though the OED Online’s hypertext apparatus can’t tell the difference.) The first British use given is from 1909, in a D.H. Lawrence story. Google Ngrams reports that the word takes off around 1850 in the American English corpus, but not till 1920 in the British English one; however, books of course are conservative and lag behind the times.

  19. 3/11/1918
    Dear Hutton,
    I’m afraid I made a mistake about a bird. The crested eagle you asked about (sema ‘alu’?) is quite certainly 1209 LOPHOTRIORCHIS KIENERI Rufous-bellied Hawk-eagle and not spizaetus nepalensis. I only found out my mistake this morning.
    Splendid news about Turkey [the surrender of Turkey at the end of the First World War]. I have given the wherewithall to rejoice all round.
    J.P. Mills

    (Mills & Hutton were colonial officers in the Naga Hills, in Assam. From Nagaland, by Jonathan Glancey.)

  20. John, the odd thing about the OED citation is that the one for Uptown is earlier (1802). Assuming that it was coined in New York and remembering that the city began downtown, I’d have thought the use of downtown must predate 1802.
    As to Highclere, yes, that’s why I mentioned Woburn.
    There’s a person at Language Log who thinks that countesses became Rt Hons, i.e. privy councillors. This is nonsense.

  21. An actual Turk, but one speaking fluent idiomatic English in 1912. Moreover “Konstantineye” was still the official Ottoman name (or maybe an official name) in 1912. It is certainly not impossible that a Turk of that social class might have said “Istanbul” at the time to foreigners but seems unlikely.

  22. Of course, it could be that the author knew full well he was sprinkling in anachronisms but counted on them to give the watchers something to feel superior about. I mean to say, dash it all, the fellow can’t really have an ear as tinny as all that, can he? Or be so lacking in someone to look over his shoulder before committing the stuff to celluloid?
    (FWIW, Pursuit of Love was published in 1945, a little late for purposes of this discussion, and doesn’t really deal with the Downstairs folk anyway.)

  23. I find the earl far too nice to everybody. His attitude is wrong: too wet, not enough hatred.
    Yes, of course, but be reasonable: how many people would watch it religiously to see a true-to-life earl being nasty to anyone he isn’t ignoring?

  24. FWIW, The Decline & Fall Of The Roman Empire was published in 1776-89, but that doesn’t mean it covers the American or French Revolution. Nancy Mitford was born in 1904, so obviously her fictionalised memoir of her childhood is set in exactly the timeframe of Downton Abbey. That it isn’t “about” the servants isn’t material.

  25. “I find the earl far too nice to everybody. His attitude is wrong: too wet, not enough hatred.” The wonderful thing about being an earl back then was that, within broad limits, you could do what you bloody well liked. If you fancied being a benign paterfamilias to your daughters and servants, you could be so. If you wanted the servants to face the wall as you passed, you could insist on that too. Mind you, you’d then have trouble attracting any but the oddest servants into your employ, but then there’s a price for everything, even for Earls.
    Anyway, it’s no more a documentary than those “class-related novels”. And it’s at least better written that the risible Lady C’s Lover – a woeful ruddy book.

  26. how many people would watch it religiously to see a true-to-life earl being nasty to anyone he isn’t ignoring?
    Don’t tell me you haven’t read The Pursuit Of Love, Language? That would be book number 2 that I’ve read that you haven’t. Anyway, it makes Downton Abbey look like As The World Turns. Uncle Matthew, based on Nancy Mitford’s father, is the world’s biggest asshole and clearly typical of the idiot British upper class of that period (i.e. the farmers, not the Russells and Cavendishes, etc.) and yet the book is a comedy.

  27. dearie: If you fancied being a benign paterfamilias to your daughters and servants, you could be so.
    Look, a fictional character who lets his chauffeur borrow books from the library at a place like Highclere ought to be a champagne-socialist post-WW2 MP, not a typical member of the pre-WW1 aristocracy.
    Liking Lady Chat doesn’t have anything to do with what I was talking about. I get a feeling for the period with D.H. Lawrence that I don’t get with DA.
    I shall be unavailable for the rest of the evening because we’ll be watching Sherlock Holmes.

  28. Trond Engen says:

    AJP: It makes sense that Uptown was coined as a counterpoint to Town. Then, as Uptown became less peripheral, Downtown was coined.
    Now I’ll watch Sherlock too. They say it’s a modern version of the Conan Doyle character, but it’s really the British remake of Psych.

  29. John Emerson says:

    How can we be sure that the Hutton in AJP’s link isn’t an early version of Harry Hutton who sent a prank letter to the poor Mr. Mills? That stuff about the birds sounds just like him.

  30. I love this thread, and I enjoy very much watching Downton Abbey (in Buenos Aires we only had the first season for now).
    Of course I can’t say anything about language, but I dare to write here, as a truly commited Cervantist, to applaud Michael Peverett’s comment:
    Why exactly anyone would want to write a perfectly non-anachronistic narrative I don’t know. (Excuse to re-read “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”, maybe.) It would be interesting to find out. Certainly, ever since Scott, we’ve known about the marvellous fructive potential of a persuasive illusion of historical narrative.

  31. “not a typical member of the pre-WW1 aristocracy”: why should a fictional aristocrat be “typical”? Should Hamlet have been about a typical Danish prince?
    “I get a feeling for the period with D.H. Lawrence that I don’t get with DA.” Yes, but is this feeling of yours anything to do with how things actually were? Your argument is entirely circular. I might as well say that I got a feeling for Renaissance Denmark from Hamlet.

  32. They say it’s a modern version of the Conan Doyle character, but it’s really the British remake of Psych.
    Without the latter’s relatable characters and believable plots, of course.

  33. Sherlock Holmes is not (shudder of momentary word rage) relatable. He is the textbook example of what Freud called a well-compensated (as opposed to truly adjusted) personality. For someone who saw his father murder his mother as a child, he’s done amazingly useful work in this world.

  34. dearie: why should a fictional aristocrat be “typical”?
    If they’re atypical then it’s hard to have a conversation about what’s anachronistic, that’s all.
    Your argument is entirely circular.
    That’s right, it’s very clear, whereas yours is like a Jackson Pollock. What’s your point? That DA isn’t anachronistic in its portrayal of the period? That earls sometimes may or may not have been rude to their servants? That fictional characters don’t tell you anything about the times they’re supposed to be living in, except when they do?
    Julia: I dare to write here, as a truly commited Cervantist, to applaud Michael Peverett’s comment
    Me too.
    Trond, you could be right about ‘downtown’. I first encountered it in the song by Petula Clarke years before I’d heard of uptown or midtown, and it’s hard for me to believe it wasn’t invented first or at least at the same time as the others.
    I knew nothing of Harry Hutton. Thanks for mentioning him, John.

  35. Schmidt remarks “The household is relieved that Carson the butler did not suffer a ‘heart attack’; but that phrase was about 50x rarer in 1917″: well it would be, wouldn’t it? “…the first description in Britain of the characteristic severe crushing chest pain followed by sudden death of a heart attack had been reported … in 1925″.
    Source: James Le Fanu “The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine”, second edition, p 362 (a belter of a book, I must say.)

  36. “Nancy Mitford was born in 1904, so obviously her fictionalised memoir of her childhood is set in exactly the timeframe of Downton Abbey. That it isn’t “about” the servants isn’t material.”
    No obvious about it. Pursuit of Love starts off sometime in the late twenties at best and ends just after the second war. DA may eventually reach that far ahead, but as of this writing, we seem to be still in 1919.
    Servants and their absence is material only because your chief comment was about “the lack of understanding of the class and age divisions.” Again, La Mitford deals pretty exclusively with the uppers.

  37. “Uncle Matthew, based on Nancy Mitford’s father, is the world’s biggest asshole and clearly typical of the idiot British upper class of that period.”
    More typical than, say, Lord Merlin or Lord Montdore, who are respectively charming and merely dull?
    (BTW, the whole heir from Canada trope is used in Love in a Cold Climate in a far more entertaining fashion than in DA)

  38. I’m not certain that you’ll understand it, but if you think Lord Merlin is “charming” then you should at least try to read Mark Amory’s biography of Gerald Berners, The Last Eccentric, upon whom Nancy Mitford based her character Lord Merlin. I wrote a piece about it at my blog a year or two ago, but I’m not going to give you the link.

  39. About the other stuff, it sounds to me that you’re deliberately misunderstanding what I wrote in order to try to win an argument. Therefore, I can’t be bothered to take the trouble to correct you. The book’s The Pursuit of Love, by the way.

  40. J.W. Brewer says:

    Obviously not everyone is typical of their class/time/place in terms of their personality and actions, and an atypical character could certainly be of more “literary” (or teevee costume drama) interest than a typical one without necessarily being anachronistic. But I would at least start with the assumption that an atypical personality nonetheless usually would exhibit broadly typical language use (in terms of accent/lexicon/syntactic patterns) for the appropriate time/place/class. They might say substantively surpising things, but the dialect in which they would say them ought not be surprising.

  41. Well then that’s fine if you’re looking for anachronisms in the speech, as Ben Zimmer is. I still think in DA the biggest anachronism isn’t in the speech at all, it’s caused by Julian Fellowes’s lack of understanding of the class divisions and how society functioned. Like John Crace I don’t think he’s much of a historian.

  42. To be fair, it’s possible that he understands those things but either fell or was pushed into the position that the Great Unwashed would flee in horror if confronted by an accurate portrayal. (This suggestion is brought to you simply by the spirit of contradiction; I hold no brief for the Fellowe.)

  43. I certainly didn’t mean to be fair, he’s a Tory member of the House of Lords, but I realized afterwards that I ought to have said ‘Fellowes’s misrepresentation of’ rather than his lack of understanding of’. It doesn’t make him any better a historian. Language, I was looking at The Pursuit of Love last night, have you really not read it? If not, I’ll send a copy over. It’s very light reading, beautifully written and perfect for bedtime. The earl character I imagine as being played by Ralph Richardson.

  44. I have really not read it, and I thank you in advance. Sounds wonderful.

  45. In a recent interview Fellowes claimed that reasonably recent ancestors of his lived in a stately home much like Downton Abbey.

  46. I’m glad that snobs like Ffellowes and the late lamented Telegraph obituarist Hugh Montgomery Massingberd can turn their affliction into something that benefits the public.

  47. narrowmargin says:

    The earl character I imagine as being played by Ralph Richardson.
    I thought I was the only person who ever “saw” real people (actors, personal friends, family) in my mind’s eye as I read. I mean, I understand this happening if you read a book after you’d seen the movie (seeing Jeremy Brett when reading Sherlock Holmes), but when there’s no “pre-context”, do you always insert known people? Or just for major characters?

  48. A very good question. I think I usually do something. I at least need an armature on which to hang the characteristics that the book describes, but the armature can also be imaginary, just invented by me. I do it with the narrators of non-fiction too if I don’t already know what they’re like. I know I currently have a mental image of Benedict Anderson, whose book Imagined Communities I’m rereading in the loo, as looking and speaking like the architectural theorist Ken Frampton, who was one of my teachers. They’re both very smart anglo-US academics, that may be why – and now I google Anderson’s picture I see I wasn’t too far off (Frampton’s better dressed). Of course the same goes for the commenters here, I have you all in my mind’s eye.
    How about you?

  49. “I’m glad that snobs like Ffellowes… can turn their affliction…”: but Crown, Fellowes’ recent ancestors lived AS SERVANTS in a stately home much like Downton Abbey.

  50. I thought I was the only person who ever “saw” real people (actors, personal friends, family) in my mind’s eye as I read.
    Surely you jest. Wherever books are discussed on the Internet, there is always to be found The Endless Casting Thread (also known as The Thread That Cannot Die), which is all about who should play the major characters when the movie c0mes out. These are immensely popular even if there is no chance there will ever even be a movie.
    A little googling for casting thread came up with the Amber mailing list’s explicit policy for casting-thread postings: a maximum of one post per person per day, period! (Amber is the universe, or multiverse, used by Roger Zelazny for his epic fantasies.)

  51. lived AS SERVANTS
    Or they make gadgets. Fellowes has been cursed, so that he looks like an ass, but that’s not entirely his fault.

  52. narrowmargin says:

    I hadn’t known about “the casting thread”.
    In any case, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the reader “casts” the movie as the reading of the book is taking place. It’s quite possible that “casting” the movie hadn’t occurred to the reader until after the book has been read. And, surely, seeing a specific person in your mind as you read may happen because it makes the book more immediate, not because you’re thinking in terms of a movie.

  53. That’s right. I’m with Narrow.

  54. Narrow, you’re technically correct, but surely when people are casting a movie, they are trying to match the pictures of the characters in their heads with the appearances of various actors? (I express this as a question because I don’t visualize anything much more complex than triangles, so I am always clueless about casting, though I can detect post facto miscasting if it’s gross enough.) Saying “I want X to play Y” is saying “Y in my head looks like X”. As for whether this happens during or after, I have no idea, but surely “during” can’t be rare.
    In short, you have plenty of company, which is what I was (over)conveying in the first place.

  55. I don’t visualize anything much more complex than triangles
    That’s interesting, you’re talking about fiction here, right? Novels, etc. not just movie scripts. Are the triangles solid or outlined? Nothing 3-D? Colors or b&w?

  56. narrowmargin says:

    surely when people are casting a movie, they are trying to match the pictures of the characters in their heads with the appearances of various actors
    Oh yes, most definitely. I was speaking (a) as a reader unconnected with the movie business, and (b) as someone uninterested in playing the casting game.
    That said, I don’t inevitably cast my visions when I read, only if/when something (author’s description, comment from a character, a way the character speaks) connects with my subconscious and a picture of someone (family, friend, actor) pops up. I wouldn’t say this happens as a rule when I read; it’s more of a pleasant accident.

  57. narrowmargin says:

    you’re talking about fiction here, right?
    Right

  58. narrowmargin says:

    Sorry, meant to write invariably, not inevitably.

  59. Crown: I was exaggerating slightly. I can visualize solid or outline regular polygons in any color up to about a hexagon, as well as circles, half-circles in various orientations, and some other things of the same simple geometric sort. After that I have to actually be seeing something to know what it looks like (as opposed to having a coarse or fine verbal description of its appearance in my head). This is probably connected with my face blindness, though not all prosopagnosics are non-visual.

  60. Interesting. One doesn’t normally find out that others experience things quite so differently. I took that to be Narrow’s point in inquiring about this in the first place. I suppose the face blindness is a tradeoff for your linguistic gifts.

  61. John Cowan’s use of the word “armature” some days back caught my eye, and I am only now looking the word up. I knew it as the rotating coil-bearing part of an electric motor or generator, but it also means several other things, including what I suppose John had in mind: “A framework serving as a supporting core for the material that is used to make a sculpture.”

  62. narrowmargin says:

    AJP = Actually, I was just interested in knowing if anyone else regularly populated their mind’s eye with familiar people as they read, in order to make the story more immediate, perhaps more 3-D, to create the armature.
    However, I was fascinated to read about John’s visuals and am always interested in what people “see” when they read, that is, how they conjure up the scene(s).

  63. Yes, me too.
    It wasn’t John, dammit, it was me. I used to make sculpture. At one time I made 1:2 scale figures from life, made of clay. You need an armature of steel rods for that or your sculpture goes all floppy.

  64. Well, excuuuuse me.
    Anyway, the New Century Dictionary (via that Wordnik link) also gives:
    In zoology and anatomy: Any part or organ of an animal serving as a means of defense or offense.
    and
    Any apparatus or set of organs without reference to defense; an equipment; an appanage: as, the genital or the anal armature.
    appanage?

  65. I guess they mean their definition 3: “A natural or necessary accompaniment; an endowment or attribute.” They give the illustrative quotation:
    Where, save the rugged road, we find
    No appanage of human kind.
      Wordsworth, Pass of Kirkstone.

  66. Indeed, Empty, I knew of armature only in the sense you mention until today.

  67. I suppose the face blindness is a tradeoff for your linguistic gifts.
    Isn’t it pretty to think so? But no, I think not, no more than my diabetes and asthma are. (My myopia, maybe. To be myopic apparently requires the confluence of a genetic predisposition plus doing close-up work such as reading or sewing from an early age. Consequently, it looks genetic in the First World, where almost everyone does learn to read, but environmental in the Third World.)

  68. I have a bit of a tin ear when it comes to hearing echoes of the real world in novels, so I’m always mildly bewildered when I see characters brought to life on the screen. Even Harry Potter rather threw me. The Weasleys, in particular, seemed quite different from what I had imagined, although my original feeble imaginings have since been totally banished by the movie version.
    Moving beyond the confines of your own culture, though, is a whole different ballgame. I was totally unprepared for the few episodes of The Dream of the Red Chamber that I once saw on TV. Wikipedia describes Jia Baoyu as a highly intelligent person who “dislikes the fawning bureaucrats that frequent his father’s house. A sensitive and compassionate individual, he has a special relationship with many of the women in the house.” On the screen he somehow came across as coarse, crass, and ugly. I’m not sure what I expected, but when I asked Chinese friends if that is what Jia Baoyu was supposed to be like, they said the screen depiction is exactly what Chinese people imagined Jia Baoyu to be like.

  69. LL, February 20, 2006: But Moby Dick’s opening {“call me Ishmael”} gets 155,000 hits,
    Six years later it gets “About 518,000 results”.
    Sorry about all your illnesses, John. I’ve just got the type 1 diabetes, and that’s enough. I bet there’s quite a high proportion of sickos here, though, smart people who don’t have “proper” jobs.

  70. I do have a proper job (no job, no health insurance), and my diabetes is type 2. Sicko in AmE, however, means ‘mentally ill criminal’, anyone from someone who eats live chickens to a serial killer.

  71. I meant “proper” in the sense of 9-5 and commuting to an office. That’s a common usage going back at least as far as John Lennon’s “So I quit the police Department, and got myself a proper job”. My “Sicko” is a paradoxical or ironic usage, to mean “those who are sick”, but I’d no idea you had to be a criminal to be a sicko in the US. I’d say Knut Ginswigger is a sicko, but I’ve no evidence that he’s a criminal (nor that he isn’t).

  72. Oh well, I guess that was “steady job”. Never mind.

  73. J.W. Brewer says:

    According to the internet, in May 1968 “McCartney was in a taxi heading to JFK airport. At the time he needed a final verse for She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, and noticed the driver’s police identification panel on the dashboard. The ID had a photograph of the driver, along with the name Eugene Quits, above the words ‘New York Police Dept.’” This was of course in the old days when NYC cab drivers were native-born sickos like Travis Bickle instead of hardworking Pakistani etc. immigrants.

  74. It ought to be ‘e quits the police dept? So much for “John Lennon”, then. Sorry I ever mentioned it.

  75. I meant “proper” in the sense of 9-5 and commuting to an office.
    So I understood you, and that’s the kind I have, though $EMPLOYER is indulgent about me writing blog comments as long as work gets done.
    My “Sicko” is a paradoxical or ironic usage
    Ah. I had thought it was part of your regular dialect.
    Knut Ginswigger
    Who he? Google unhelpful. (@#$* these low-context Brits.)
    Travis Bickle
    A sicko in the full criminal sense, indeed a murderer. But I grant that someone can be a sicko without doing something outright illegal. Advocating cruelty to animals, or for that matter killing by torture, is not illegal, but definitely the act of a sicko.

  76. Newt Gin-rich.

  77. In Britain we don’t say “sick” if we mean “ill”. Of course the young, who speak semi-American, may disagree. (Mind you, many Scots prefer “not well” to “ill”, though otherwise our speech is franker than is common among the English.)

  78. In Britain we don’t say “sick” if we mean “ill”. Of course the young, who speak semi-American, may disagree. (Mind you, many Scots prefer “not well” to “ill”, though otherwise our speech is franker than is common among the English.)

  79. We say “sickness”, though. The Norwegian for hospital is “sickhouse”. Ok, sykehus.

  80. Hey, if sick ‘ill’ was good enough for the King James Version, it’s good enough for us.
    More seriously, the word may be uncommon, but hardly unknown. Here are the OED2′s quotations for the word in this sense from the 20th century. I have annotated them [[thus]] with the nationality of the author.
    1902 W. B. Yeats [[Irish]] Where there is Nothing (1903) iv. i. 77 No fear, they won’t refuse a sick man.
    1915 D. O. Barnett [[English]] Lett. 53 He’s lots better this morning,‥and he is not ‘going sick’ at all.
    1927 E. Thompson [[American]] These Men thy Friends 12 Filthy climate. No fun. But she just carries on. Hasn’t gone sick once in six months.
    1936 G. B. Shaw [[Irish]] Millionairess ii. 164 You are my doctor: do you hear? I am a sick woman: you cannot abandon me to die.
    1945 Chambers’s Jrnl. [[Scottish?]] Sept. 452/1 ‘And you’re telling me that you’ve never had a few days off?‥ Not even for sick-leave?’ ‘I was never sick, sir.’
    1952 M. Allingham [[English]] Tiger in Smoke iv. 77 He went sick.‥ It was so hopeless, so damned silly and forlorn as a lead-swing that in the end he got away with it.
    1956 D. Jacobson [[South African]] Dance in Sun ii. ix. 91 ‘Hey,’ he said rudely to Fletcher, ‘are you sick?’
    1959 V. Watkins [[Welsh]] Cypress & Acacia 23, I found him feeble and sick. And cold.
    1962 G. Lawton [[??]] John Wesley’s English iii. 57 When Wesley is sick he is ‘laid-up.’
    1976 Evening Post [[English?]] (Nottingham) 15 Dec. 24/4 Willis went sick during the opening match in Poona.
    I note that a number of these uses are in go sick, apparently an idiom: I’m not familiar with it.

  81. “go sick” probably means to be absent from work by reason of being ill; “going on the sick” would mean (I think) that you are claiming a dole of some sort by reason of being ill, or claiming “sick pay” from your employer. “Being sick” often means vomiting, as in “Jack was being sick in the street.” Still, I think we incline (or inclined) to being ill rather than being sick. But maybe it’s regional – if East Anglians and Cockneys once preferred “sick” that might explain why Americans favour it.

  82. “Sick headache” is a Britishism, right? Always sounds a little odd to me, because, well, any headache is likely to be thought of as a symptom of some illness. Or not. Besides, it’s usually the patient, not the sickness, that’s sick.
    Anyway, I think it’s a name for a migraine headache. But why “sick” and not “ill”?

  83. I think it means a throw-up headache. I used to get migraines and they would only end after I threw up, or was “sick” in the British sense, so I know there’s a connection.
    Despite the OED citations I agree with dearie that some people in Britain (me & him) have an aversion to saying “sick” when they could say “ill”. I don’t know why, or how it came about.

  84. I know there’s a connection.
    That sounds like the answer to my question, then.

  85. …So in England and possibly Scotland if I say “I’m feeling sick” I would mean “I’m feeling like throwing up”, not “I feel ill”.
    Norwegians say “I’m kvalm” for “I’m feeling nauseous”. No doubt it’s the same word as “qualm” in English, but with a slightly different meaning.

  86. When I was a nipper, “I’m feeling sick” meant, as you say, “I feel that I’m about to vomit”. I’d never heard “throw up” until I heard it in an American film at some time in my adult life. A scottish alternative to “to vomit” was “to boke”, which I first heard in Edinburgh as an undergraduate.

  87. Norwegians say “I’m kvalm” for “I’m feeling nauseous”. No doubt it’s the same word as “qualm” in English, but with a slightly different meaning.
    Ah, Crown, Crown, Crown. You would mention one of the most hairy and complicated words in the English language. And your comment would be seen by me, an abject victim of Geek Answer Syndrome (the tendency to answer questions that haven’t been asked; differs from Male Answer Syndrome in that the answers are intended to be correct and to inform, rather than being merely bullshit meant to impress).
    Okay. In the beginning there was the Old English word cwealm, cwælm, cwelm, Early Modern English qualm, which meant ‘death, violent death, plague, pestilence’ or examples thereof. This word died out around 1400, or a little later in Scots.
    Around 1550 a new word qualm came into English, meaning ‘pang’ (of fear, misgiving, despair, or conscience), which is our modern word. Where did it come from? Well, all the Scandinavian languages have kvalm ‘nausea, sickness, indisposition’. These words may descend from the Scandinavian cognaties of the older English qualm, but almost certainly have one or both of the German words Qualm mixed in with them, either directly or by way of calque.
    So what are these German Qualm words? Well, one comes from Low German and means ‘smoke, miasma, vapor’; it may be ultimately a deverbal noun from quellen ‘well up, gush up’. This has borrowed or cognate forms in the Scandinavian languages. The other one is apparently not actually attested, but would be the derivative of Middle High German twalm, the cognate of Scots dwa(l)m ‘swoon’ (see comments by me and David M. here, then here.) Apparently a few German words in tw- went to qu- rather than zw-, notably quer ‘across’ (cf. English thwart) and Quark ‘soft cheese’ < Lower Sorbian twarog; see the second link above. Semantically this is closest to English qualm, but the exact path cannot be traced with reliability. At least, that’s the best story I’ve been able to hack out of the OED’s thicket of maybes, perhapses, and possiblys.
    Last is the question of the pronunciation. In BrE the l is usually silent, and often but not always in AmE. In both places, the older vowel quality is the THOUGHT vowel, but more usually the PALM vowel is used today. That makes four standard pronunciations for one lousy monosyllable.

  88. I think Australians talk about ‘taking a sickie’, which means taking sick leave (no need to actually be ill, of course; you’re entitled to sick leave, so take it). But to ‘feel sick’ definitely means you feel nauseous. So the two sense can live in the same dialect :)

  89. Very interesting, John. Thanks. Quellen must be related to “quell”, though it seems to mean the opposite. The online dictionary says ‘quell’ is from OE ‘cwellan’ [kill,] of Germanic origin; related to German ‘quälen’ ‘torture’. Personally, I pronounce the Ls in qualm & golf – though in England that’s very, very bad classwise. On the other hand I don’t pronounce the L in balm, calm & palm, so maybe I’m saved.
    Australians have more than thirty words for ‘vomit’, most of them invented by Barry Humphries.

  90. I think the true English cognate of quellen is well (verb); the semantics certainly agree.

  91. the semantics certainly agree
    The Semantics sounds like a 60s group from Detroit.

  92. So much so that I googled [the semantics rock band], and of course it turns out there is such a band, though not a ’60s one.

  93. And here‘s an earlier one from Nashville. Obviously an irresistible name.

  94. It turns out there’s also The Pragmatics.

  95. J.W. Brewer says:

    The “well up, gush up” sense of quellen presumably gave rise to the Yiddishism “to kvell” which however has a generally positive, non-vomit-oriented meaning.

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