Friday, February 10, 2012

Narrative Friction

I recently learned (maybe I’m the last to know) that Ben Zimmer of The Boston Globe has been tracking anachronistic language in the PBS hit show Downton Abbey for a project called Visual Thesaurus. The anachronisms are also the subject of a YouTube video.

The examples (“I couldn’t care less”) have not struck me while I watched the series, so I can’t claim they took this viewer out of the fiction. It could be that I’m just a sucker for an English accent, lapsing into instant credulousness at the first seemingly erudite syllable. Then again, some of these “mistakes” seem like a great deal of hairsplitting. For instance, the word “floozy” — which Zimmerman flags — is said only to have begun in American (not British) slang in the earlier part of the decade in which Downton takes place. I don’t know — I’m not a linguist — but the first written citation in the Dictionary of American Slang dates to 1902. Wouldn’t the oral slang precede the written? Doesn’t at least sixteen years seem like enough time for that usage to have crossed the pond, especially with a world war on? And isn’t it possible that the character who speaks this word was at least exposed to an American in England who introduced her to the usage?

Well, never mind the pilpul; it’s all in good fun. But this exercise does bring to my mind the issue of narrative voice in fiction.