Words and Stuff Johnny Grimond
Anachronisms can be irritating, says JOHNNY GRIMOND
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?’