Lexicon Valley takes on Mad Men

Friday, June 15, 2012


Mad Men's fifth season is over. From it's start, part of the show's allure has been the way it meticulously creates Manhattan in the 1960’s. Period specific language is part of that, but verbal anachronisms sneak in with surprising frequency. In this excerpt of the Lexicon Valley podcast, Bob Garfield and former OTM producer Mike Vuolo discuss the linguistic anachronisms in Mad Men.


Benjamin Schmidt

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield and Michael Vuolo

Comments [10]

Rob Funk from Columbus, OH

Even though I don't watch the show, I was fascinated by this discussion of the speaking style in Mad Men and the technology used to detect anachronisms in it.

That said, I was appalled that someone with a show called "Lexicon Valley" would employ, with all seriousness, the mostly-nonsensical and nearly-always-misused expression "the exception that proves the rule.":

"It turns out that the language of technology is something that we tend to get right, with one exception that proves the rule. That’s language around the use of the phone, possibly because the phone seems to us like one of those eternal entities, and so we don’t imagine that the language we use to describe the way we deal with the phone has changed."

The phrase should be the topic of its own installment of Lexicon Valley, since so many people use it without thinking about the absurdity of it, much less its origins. The usual example for the limited type of situation where it does make sense is a parking sign: A sign saying "Free parking on Sunday" is expressing an exception to the implied rule that you have to pay to park there on other days.

But in this case, Mike Vuolo seems to be using "the expression that proves the rule" in the more common and nonsensical way, to say that the fact that Mad Men gets phone language wrong proves that they generally get technology right. (Which of course it doesn't.) Or possibly he meant that the exception to his statement that they get technology language right proves the larger rule about getting language wrong. Which makes a tiny bit more sense, but is really convoluted and still not what the expression means.

Luckily the rest of the piece didn't have any more such usage, so I enjoyed it with no more wondering about the logical sense of it. :-)

Jun. 20 2012 01:35 PM

In response to Bradley Skene from St. Louis --

I worked in offices from the mid-70s through to the end of the century, and I'm here to tell you that in EVEN IN 1978 a fax machine was so rare that the Bank of America world headquarters in San Francisco had ONLY ONE such machine, and it was treated like a large rare bird. In fact, it was kept apart in a room by itself, accessible only to those who had been especially trained to use it.

I know, because I was a new hire at Bank of America at that time. One day, a fellow wanted to impress me with "a machine that'll make a copy appear in New York in just a few minutes!" As I recall, the document took about 12 minutes to transmit, but it contained a lot of fine print.

So obviously a fax machine would have been an anachronism 15 years earlier!

As for your reference to the Wikipedia article, I just read it thoroughly. It states:

"PRIOR TO the introduction of the ubiquitous fax machine, one of the FIRST being the Exxon Qwip IN THE MID 70s, facsimile machines worked by optical scanning of a document or drawing spinning on a drum.... The current was used to control a tone generator.... This audio tone was then transmitted using an acoustic coupler ... attached to the microphone of a common telephone handset....

"A pair of these expensive and bulky machines could only be afforded by companies with a serious need to communicate drawings, design sketches or signed documents between distant locations, such as an office and factory." [Emphasis mine]

Jun. 18 2012 04:15 AM
Bradley Skene from St. Louis

I found it jarring when the Guest made an off-hand remark that a fax machine would obviously be anachronistic on Mad Men.

In fact, the fax machine was invented in the 19th century, but was generally only used at first by newspapers. Whenever you hear reporters talk in old films about 'sending a story on the wire', the wire means a fax machine.

Looking on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fax_machine) I see that Xerox started selling the first fax machine that was widely used in offices in 1964, so it would not be an anachronism at all.

Jun. 17 2012 07:04 PM

The best source of all types of the spoken word would be court transcripts. I would guess there would be plenty of business cases where the different income groups in MM would be on the stand.

Jun. 17 2012 05:18 PM
Stephen Blauweiss from NYC

The song is the theme from the James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice."

Jun. 17 2012 12:26 PM

Can anyone identify the 60's song that ended the Lexicon Valley story (and thus the whole programme)?

Jun. 17 2012 11:08 AM
Barbara Goodman from FL

I was pushing hold buttons in a NY office about that time and would swear that the phrase "on hold" was used then, but my memory cannot be counted upon for 100% accuracy. If the phrase didn't emerge in literature until the 70s, isn't it possible those of us in the trenches were early adopters but literature didn't catch up until a couple or three years later?

I recall one gaffe in this season's first episode of MM where the Heinz beans client wanted his ad aimed toward young people saying he wanted it to be "cool." In the early-to-mid 60s "cool" might have been used by jazz musicians, bohemians and eventually by early hippies and flower children, but not by a guy who wore a suit and tie for a living. It then disappeared completely but became ubiquitous 30 years later.

Jun. 17 2012 02:33 AM

Not only did the press not cover the infamous "McRaven memo" where Director Panetta instructed Adm. McRaven to not proceed if the bin Laden raid's risk profile surpassed that of the mission profile once the mission was underway (therefore opening him up to charges of exceeding his orders, or even disobeying orders) and letting the White House hang the potential failure of the raid around McRaven's neck (and destroying his career in the process)... OTM also failed to cover this conspicuous absence.

But I can surely understand why: had they covered it, they might have had to skip covering "Mad Men" and the like.

Jun. 16 2012 04:42 PM
Carmelita from Ann Arbor, MI

"Keep a low profile" = Keep your head down = Don't stick your neck out (this last one was a favorite of my father's).

(And I'm proud to say that I caught "deal-breaker." That was an easy one.)

I quite frequently hear the women on Mad Men using expressions in romantic or social situations that strike me as anachronistic. Megan says to Don, "that's not what this is," when she's communicating that he has misunderstood the tone of her argument. Peggy's character uses anachronistic expressions all the time too. Mad Men clearly needs some 40-50-something women writers. I won't hold my breath. Maybe if they had some black women writers they could have given Don's secretary (Dawn) a voice. Some of us waited in vain all season for that. I won't be looking for what next season brings. They lost me.

The idea that prostituting oneself could be professionally empowering in the way that it was for Joan... is ironically anachronistic and, I might add, an anachronistic, sexist male fantasy. I'm not saying that women couldn't and didn't "get ahead" by sleeping with the right person. But if the whole office knew about it? If the office sold her off? Mad Men's writers think Joan would not have lost respect among her co-workers? She would have been treated like a "whore." She would certainly not have been made partner for selling her body. This entire scenario was ludicrous and sickening. After the way they treated Joan and Dawn... I'm out.

Jun. 16 2012 03:23 PM
Erica from Chelsea

As a lover of language and grammar, I am cringing at "from it's start." Basic.

Jun. 16 2012 11:31 AM

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