Anachronisms In ‘Downton Abbey’: Terms That The Show Got Totally Wrong

‘Quid’ is not the proper term for a proper lady.
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Anachronisms In ‘Downton Abbey’: Terms That The Show Got Totally Wrong

Photo Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

Since the hotly anticipated Downton Abbey film hit theaters in 2019, the world is once again being transported to early 20th-century England in order to follow the rich and sometimes scandalous tales of the Crawley family, their staff and their royal acquaintances. 

The series is loved for offering a rare glimpse into the lives of the upper classes. And just like the wardrobe department and set designers, scriptwriters have admitted to using a little bit of artistic license when it comes to the language they chose. On occasion, phrasing has been used that has the feel of authenticity in order to make it relatable to modern audiences, even if it’s not historically accurate.

“Linguistically, much of the speech and language used in Downton Abbey is historically inaccurate, however purposefully so,” said Ted Mentele, an editor on Babbel’s Didactics Team. “As time passes, the English language changes for various reasons. This is partly due to the adoption of words to our vocabulary, as we introduce words from other languages, and at the same time losing older, more irrelevant words. Other factors are linked to phonetic developments over periods of time and accents changing phonologically. To put this concept in real terms, just think of the change in pronunciation of BBC broadcasters since the ’40s, as society has become more exposed to regional accents over time. The meanings of words, or semantic changes, have also been taking place since English first appeared. For example, the word ‘business’ was originally defined as being ‘a state of being busy, or anxious,’ but has now come to refer to various professional occupations.”

Mentele continued, “Since language is subject to historical change, the scriptwriters of Downton have adapted the English of the 20th century to ensure its easy accessibility to the modern viewer. Being too authentic, in this case, may have thrown the audience off course, making terminology — and the delivery of the Dowager Countess’s one-liners — difficult for us to understand.”

Here are some words and phrases you might hear your favorite Downton Abbey characters using that would have literally been unheard of at the time.

Que Será, Será – Dowager Countess

The current reality of foreign language education in the U.K. is that many of today’s Brits don’t make an effort to learn foreign languages because it’s presumed that most of the world already understands English. In the 1920s, however, the aristocracy were masters of European languages thanks to their education. So surely it makes sense that the Dowager Countess would use “que será, será” in day-to-day conversation, right? Well, as it turns out, not quite.

While the phrase’s use in the English language can be traced as far back as the 16th century, it only became popularized after Doris Day’s performance of the song, Que será, será (“Whatever will be, will be”) in 1956. It’s highly unlikely that the Dowager Countess would have used it in day-to-day speech. 

Pregnant – Anna Bates, Head Housemaid

Technically, the term did exist in the 1920s, but it wasn’t actively used until after the 1950s, especially by anyone respectable. Saying that a woman was “pregnant” was considered very crass. Instead, you would say that she was “in the family way” or in an “interesting condition.” The puritanical attitude toward the word “pregnant” might stem from the Victorian era, known for its aversion to sex, and is also perhaps linked to the fact that animals were typically described as “pregnant” and humans as “expecting.”

Quid – Lady Mary Crawley

“Quid” has been used as an alternative term for “pound” for centuries. With origins dating as far back as the Roman occupation of Britain, it’s thought that “quid” originated from the Latin phrase quid pro quo, meaning “one thing in return for another.” It’s possible that Lady Mary knew Latin, but a woman of her standing wouldn’t refer to a pound as a “quid,” as it was, and still remains, a slang term for the currency. 

Step On It – Lord Grantham

Cars were very much present in the Downton Abbey universe; how else would Tom have begun his journey? But Lord Grantham wouldn’t have asked Tom to “step on it” to signal him to drive faster. While the phrase was used as early as 1910, it was only in vogue across the pond, in the United States. Even with Lord Grantham’s American influence, it’s fairly implausible that he would be so familiar with American jargon, and even less likely that Tom would understand what “step on it” means. 

I’m Just Sayin’ – Ethel Parks, Housemaid

Today’s English speakers are more than familiar with this expression. It’s a regular addition to the end of our sentences, especially when saying something that could cause offense, but isn’t necessarily meant to. In the Crawley days, however, the expression simply didn’t exist. The earliest uses of it aren’t found until after World War II, so it’s nearly impossible that a maid of this era would use it. #justsayin

Black Market – Thomas Barrow, Footman

Another term that really only came into use during and after the second World War is “black market.” The concept existed, but it wasn’t commonplace. When Thomas set up his goods-trading side hustle, it would have more likely been referred to as some means of acquiring goods illegally. Mrs. Patmore probably wouldn’t have known what he was talking about when he asked if she was “suggesting the black market.” It wasn’t until heavy rationing during World War II that the term — and the trade itself — became popular.

Couldn’t Care Less – Lady Sybil Crawley

We’ve all said we “couldn’t care less” about something before. Back in the ’20s, however, the expression hadn’t yet entered the popular lexicon. It wasn’t until 1944 that the first recording of this phrase was published in the Chicago Tribune. At one point, Sybil says this to her father, Lord Grantham, to describe the way she feels about love over riches in the case of marrying Downton’s chauffeur. Don’t be fooled, however; a woman of her time wouldn‘t have used this to express such an emotion.

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