Visualization of the Week: Anachronistic language in "Mad Men"

A look at the historical accuracy of "Mad Men's" dialogue.

“Mad Men” returns on Sunday night for its fifth season, and Princeton grad student Ben Schmidt returns with a look at anachronistic language in the series widely acclaimed for its historical accuracy.

Last month, we looked at Schmidt’s visualization of anachronistic language in PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” which is set in the 1910s. Schmidt takes the same approach to examining the dialogue of “Mad Men,” running the scripts through the Google Ngram database to see how the show’s language stacks up against texts published in the 1960s.

Anachronistic language in Mad Men
A look at the anachronistic language in “Mad Men.” Check out a larger version of this image and read related analysis.

How does the show fare? Schmidt has found that there are “noticeably fewer outliers towards the top” in “Mad Men” compared to “Downton Abbey.” Moreover, those outliers are actually appropriate. He has an essay in this week’s Atlantic looking at some of this language in more detail.

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  • While I am often offended by anachronistic phrases in period pieces, you can defend Mad Men on the grounds of putting accessibility over authenticity. Original works from the 60s are products of their time and live within the unspoken conventions of the era. Mad Men gives a nod to the language of the time, but frames it in a way that allows a modern audience to grasp the subtleties of character and situation that would be impossible with a stricter adherence to the “foreign” language of the time.

    I’ve been archiving authentic early-60s promotional party recipe booklets on my blog and I’ve found one that provides insights into the zeitgeist of the time, but also would be perfect for a Mad Men premiere party. The design, copy and recipes are a beautiful snap-shot of the time. You can see the past vividly in the writing, and some of the cocktail and hors d’oeuvres recipes seem strange and foreign. Here’s a link to the original “How to Give a Vodka Party” guide: