The English Pedant – A plague of anachronisms


A film about the caveman who discovered fire would have to very carefully thought out and written.

The writer would have to be careful not to bless the man (let’s just assume it was a man, okay?) with too much knowledge, because knowledge probably didn’t amount to much in those days. Mankind was probably still finding out which plants could be eaten and which would make them sick or even dead, and although there would have been wise ones whose opinion was sought on such matters, they may not have been officially recognized as medical experts.

Now if I can just set fire to this dinosaur we can have a barbecue


Note how that paragraph is full of ‘probably’ and ‘may have’, because it deals with something which I don’t know about and what I was doing was trying to avoid anachronisms.Give that medically-inclined caveman a stethoscope or the gift of intelligible speech with which to ask somebody to say ‘Ah’ and you’re imposing things on the situation which did not exist in those times.

Make that film and have a jet trail in the sky or the distant sound of a motorbike and you’re at it again – breaking the rules of historical accuracy. Anachronisms are like a plague to anyone attempting to conjure up a bygone age. Modern films, though, are full of them, not so much in terms of mobile phones in Dickensian offices or Napoleon Bonaparte wearing a Spice Girls t-shirt, but in the words the writers put into the actors’ mouths and even the way those actors speak.

cave woman
Okay, sweetheart, I’ll just invent the mattress and we can do it lying down

There’s a phrase that seems to crop up in every other film these days. It’s a delicate situation in which one character is attracted to another but it’s not reciprocated, or one wants to proceed faster than the other. The one who is making the running says, “I should go…” and hopes to be invited to stay.

Obviously the words I, should and go have existed for centuries, and people have long been using them in that order, but they didn’t crop up in that exact way, in that context, until the age of Reese Witherspoon’s side-sliding eyes and Bradley Cooper’s carefully controlled smile.But the expression is now here, well established and unremarkable – except to the English Pedant.

Pedantry is not fun. It can actually be a curse; it can spoil the sufferer’s enjoyment of simple, unremarkable things such as films. Show a pedant a film set in the 1970s and have an actor wearing a wide-lapelled suit look away nervously from the object of his affections and say, “I should go,” and that, “right there” as the Friends generation would say, is a Matisse hanging on a caveman’s wall. It’s that caveman bowing to a lady and saying, “Good morrow, Mistress Stoneage.”

Movie makers at the most expensive, most professional end of the spectrum have script editors and people looking at the issue of continuity, but perhaps it all depends on how old these people are, or how carefully they have studied the ever-changing English language.Words aside, one thing that seems to have escaped the whole industry is the way people talk – the way they pronounce words. No school-leaver in England now seems to be able to say “oh”, but “ay” or “you” without making it sound like “ye”. They’re all going, “Thank ye. Yes, tee tree,” when they mean “too true”.

Aykay Mr Darcy. I’m taytally cool with that. Dayn’t meeve, I’m coming ayver.

That’s just the way things are going, and there is nothing wrong with it. It just doesn’t belong in a Jane Austen adaptation. Nor does it belong in any of the pre-21st century-set films starring Keira Knightley.

If she wants to do it in Love, Actually that’s up to her, but in King Arthur and Anna Karenina, no. Somebody please find an English pronunciation guide on YouTube and play her the one where they explain how to say the oo sound.

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