“Hell’s bells, Trudy!” and other Mad Men lingo

As a fan of the TV show Mad Men, whose creator Matt Weiner attempts to inject historical authenticity into all aspects of the show (currently dramatizing New York life in 1965), I really enjoyed an online discussion about how much cursing and slang really went into casual speech in that era.  The video is on Bloggingheads.tv and also excerpted on the New York Times website here, and includes Benjamin Zimmer of the Times speaking with John McWhorter of the New Republic.

People like the main character’s ex-wife Betty, and his colleague Pete Campbell, have particularly stiff and proper speech styles that frankly sound somewhat phony today.  Does Pete Campbell’s proper speech style ring true for 1965, in terms of his character’s background and aspirations?  Like Data on Star Trek, Pete doesn’t even use contractions [I mean, he does not], and uses what Zimmer calls “minced oaths,” like hell’s bells and judas priest.

An interesting part of this conversation concerns what evidence the writers might properly use to reconstruct the reality of speech from the ’60s.  Would the letters people wrote in that era be a good measure?  How about popular film?  After deciding that letters would be too different from spoken language, they consider that movie dialogue is an unreliable indicator, too. Social pressures may have pushed screenwriters and actors to make it all sound more proper than everyday speech actually did in those days.

So what spoken language examples could you find then for casual speech from that era, as a point of comparison?  John McWhorter suggests a radio show that recorded people when they did not realize they were being overheard, Candid Microphone, a precursor to Candid Camera.    Having listened to these old recordings, he thinks that, except for some now outdated expressions, ordinary people in those days — “in terms of sloppiness,” and slang, and cursing — sounded just like us.

I was trying to remember how my own parents spoke in those days. My parents were from the deep south and spoke with heavy southern accents, so I’m pretty sure they didn’t sound like the New Yorkers on Mad Men. In fact, cursing was considered so unladylike in the south that I never heard my mother swear at all. It was also bad form for a family man, so my father cleaned up his epithets to things like “Flitter!” Sounds as quaint as hell’s bells in retrospect.


  1. Szidonia says:

    Very interesting! I obviously need to check out Mad Men, but I have banished all TV from my life thinking I need no more distraction, just write, write, write….

    Nevertheless, I am surprised the producers did not consult one of the most famous American linguists (well, next to Chomsky :) of all times: William Labov. (I think he is teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, but I might be wrong about that.) If there is a “founding father” of sociolinguistics, then that is Labov. His first seminal work was published in 1966 under the title, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, and his focus is precisely an analysis of different linguistic registers. His other important work is Language in the Inner City, 1972, where he is looking at AAVE (African American Vernacular English), arguing, basically, that AAVE should not be considered a substandard variety, but a dialect of its own.

  2. Conan776 says:

    My father is maybe a little younger than Pete Campbell and from the Northeast and he definitely used minced oaths. Heck, I still use them. ;)

    BTW, here’s another audio program about this issue: http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2012/06/lexicon_valley_anachronisms_in_mad_men_downton_abbey_and_edith_wharton_.html

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