Words and Stuff Johnny Gri­mond

Anachro­nisms can be ir­ri­tat­ing, says JOHNNY GRI­MOND

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

ABOUT THIS time of year Shet­landers kill some of the long hours of dark­ness by build­ing a replica of a Vik­ing long­ship, which they will burn in Jan­uary in a great fire fes­ti­val. A few peo­ple com­plain that the winged hel­mets worn by the guiz­ers – lat­ter­day Norse­men in cos­tumes – are not al­to­gether au­then­tic. Does it mat­ter?

Not to most peo­ple, in­clud­ing me. It’s all good fun, and the Vik­ings were too long ago to war­rant a fuss. But when Lord Gran­tham starts talk­ing about the ‘farm­ing com­mu­nity’, I bri­dle. Doesn’t any­body in­volved in the pro­duc­tion of

Down­ton Abbey say, ‘Would the old boy re­ally use such a phrase in the 1920s?’? And when it comes to some­thing set in even more re­cent times, the 1950s, which most read­ers of The Oldie can prob­a­bly re­mem­ber bet­ter than what they had for break­fast, the use of mod­ern words and ex­pres­sions can re­ally jar.

Which brings me to Pho­to­graph 51, an ex­cel­lent play that I com­mend to ev­ery­one. Al­though a piece of fic­tion, it is one of those doc­u­men­tary works that are based on some­one’s life, as the re­cent films about Alan Tur­ing and Stephen Hawk­ing were, and as such it lacks dra­matic ten­sion. But it is well pro­duced, well acted and bless­edly short. It is also well con­structed and I would even say well writ­ten, but for the fact that so many of the words put into the mouths of the cast hit my ear as be­ing im­plau­si­bly ut­tered by ed­u­cated Bri­tons – sci­en­tists strug­gling to dis­cover the struc­ture of DNA – in the 1950s.

All right, per­haps a sci­en­tist might have used the term ‘cut­ting edge’ in its fig­u­ra­tive sense (as in cut­ting-edge re­search) in 1951, though I doubt it, and the ear­li­est first use seems to have been ‘mid 20th cent’. I doubt, too, whether any­one in 1951 would have spo­ken of ‘head­ing up’ a study. The use of ‘like’ in place of ‘as though’ (‘It’s not like bio­physi­cists have such great con­ver­sa­tions…’) is old, but not among English aca­demics with Phds.

The pro­tag­o­nist, Ros­alind Franklin, could hardly have played Scrabble as a child in the 1920s since the game did not ap­pear un­til 1948. More to the point, she would surely not have asked her as­sis­tant whether he was play­ing what Amer­i­cans call ‘soli­taire’, when that term in Bri­tish English in­volved mar­bles and a board, whereas the card game was called pa­tience. Would she have said to her col­league, ‘You never com­mit to any­thing’? I think not, any more than she would have used a ‘re­la­tion­ship’ to mean an af­fair. Nei­ther, I think, would she have used either ‘ac­cess’ or ‘short­hand’ as a verb, or spo­ken of dif­fi­cul­ties as ‘is­sues’.

Come to that, Fran­cis Crick would not have used ‘prat’ to mean a fool or jerk: the Ox­ford Dic­tionary of Mod­ern Slang says its first use in this sense was in 1968. His ri­val Mau­rice Wilkins is un­likely to have spo­ken about ‘fund­ing’ for re­search, since that term was still gen­er­ally re­served for the con­ver­sion of a float­ing debt into a per­ma­nent one. Sim­i­larly, a ‘date’, mean­ing assig­na­tion, would not have en­tered the lex­i­con of the Bri­tish in the early 1950s, un­less per­haps it was used with a hint of in­verted com­mas (not here). And as for ‘ref­er­ence’ as a verb, though the OED gives its first use as 1621, it has be­come com­mon only in the 21st cen­tury.

I do not ex­pect a book about El­iz­a­bethan England to be writ­ten in Tu­dor English. But in a play set in mod­ern times, why bother to get sets and cos­tumes right, never mind Ni­cole Kid­man’s flaw­less English ac­cent, when so many words are wrong? Just ask an oldie to read the script.

‘Or maybe I should go with the one I looked at

five hours ago. What do you think?’

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