Thursday , April 18 2024
Talk to the organ-grinder.

Language Matters in Life and Business: Downton Abbey Talk

downton abbey season 6The Mother Country has invaded American shores once more, this time with the Downton Abbey Season 6 premiere, complete with words and turns of phrase that may sound curious and even mysterious to American ears. And so, to start the new year off with a topic of pre-eminent urgency, here are a few notable verbalisms from Episode 1 of the final season of the PBS juggernaut.

The phrase “Ta very much” will be familiar to Americans who spend any time with people (real or TV-fictional) from the northern parts of the British Isles. But how did “thank you” or “thanks” get shortened to “ta?” The answer: It didn’t. “Ta” is shortened from “Tak,” Danish for “Thank you,” reflecting the influence of the Danish language on Scotland and northern England from the time of the Vikings, when the area was part of the Danelaw. Place names ending in “by” and “thorpe” also bear the Nordic effect, as “by” means “town” in Danish and “thorpe” means a small village or hamlet. In the Yorkshire region where Downton Abbey takes place, these include Whitby, Haxby, Thorganby, Ferrensby, Hunmanby, Selby, Osgodby, Foggathorpe, Wilsthorpe, Scagglethorpe, and just-plain Thorpe.

“You let those children run you ragged.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says this phrase dates from 1915. Thus, had the characters used it in Season 1, which took place circa 1912, it would have been an anachronism, but in Season 6’s 1925 it’s plausible.

Nor you nor I can hold back time,” says Robert, Earl of Grantham, to his mother, the Dowager Countess. “Nor you nor I” looks and sounds wrong to Americans educated to say “neither you nor I.” It seems to be an archaic usage, as in the old children’s folk song I learned as a small child: “Nor you nor I nor nobody knows/How oats peas beans and barley grows.” The song dates from at least the 18th century, possibly the 17th.

In introducing a conflict between the Dowager and Mrs. Crawley over control of the local hospital, the episode introduced me to a word I’d never heard before. A hospital’s almoner (the word derives from “alms”) was responsible for organizing after-care for poor patients discharged after their most severe symptoms had been treated. “The Almoners’ Department,” explains the Historic Hospital Admission Records Project, “was a pre-NHS forerunner of the Social Work Departments found in modern hospitals today.” (NHS is Britain’s National Health Service.)

The expression “on tenterhooks” means in a state of tension, suspense, anxiety about something that is (or may be) about to happen. But do you know what a tenterhook is? I didn’t. Merriam-Webster defines a tenterhook as “a sharp hooked nail used especially for fastening cloth on a tenter.” A tenter is “a frame or endless track with hooks or clips along two sides that is used for drying and stretching cloth.” It’s no wonder we’ve lost track of the meaning of “tenterhook” aside from the expression “on tenterhooks.” How many of us dry and stretch cloth these days?

Regarding rumored staff cuts, Barrow says, “If it’s all right with you, Miss Denker, I’d rather talk to the organ-grinder.” This refers to an expression phrased something like “I’d rather talk to the organ-grinder than to his monkey,” meaning to talk to the person in charge rather than to a figurehead or messenger.

Speaking of Barrow, I wondered if his use of the expression “Search me!” was an anachronism. But if our friend the Online Etymology Dictionary is correct, the expression goes back to 1901. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms agrees, dating it to c. 1900.

Back upstairs, when Lord Grantham tells Cora that “John’s father and my papa were as thick as thieves” he’s using an expression that goes back at least to 1828 in print, and so must have originated even earlier in speech. Although we generally don’t use the word “thick” as slang for “closely allied” or “conspiratorial” any more, the old expression survives, having outlasted alternatives “as thick as peas in a shell,” “as thick as three in a bed,” and my favorite, “as thick as inkle weavers.”

Words and phrases come, and words and phrases go. As Edith says in Episode 1, “Sic transit gloria mundi” – to which we might add, “sic transit gloria lingua.”

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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