What’s the word problem at the heart of Mad Men?

There has been much ado about the specific clothing, furniture, and products in the hit AMC series Mad Men. Of course, fans love the accurate details. The afternoon cocktails and elaborate dresses are a constant reminder of how much has changed in the 50 years since the 1960s. The show gets the set right, but what about the dialogue? How does their accuracy apply to language? Not so well, it seems.

There are two straightforward methods to tease out the anachronisms. One compares the dialogue in Mad Men to the books published in the ’60s; the other compares the dialogue in Mad Men to the dialogue in television shows and movies in the ’60s, like the Twilight Zone and Dr. Strangelove. Obviously, neither is a perfect measure. A journal entry or letter written during the era might better capture the actual words that people used, but we do not have all the letters from the ’60s conveniently digitized. So these are the best methods available.

Benjamin Schmidt, a graduate student in intellectual history, has studied this in-depth. Schmidt recently assembled a useful diagram of phrases used in Mad Men that do not appear in books written during that time. The outliers on his diagram show the anachronistic phrases. Some phrases, like espresso beans and safety protocol, did not enter common English parlance until the ’70s or later.

The most striking out-of-place word, though, is “pantyhose.” Early in the show, pantyhose appeared in Peggy’s apartment, and fashion mavens quickly pointed out that pantyhose were not worn in the 1960s. The language problem, though, is that the word “pantyhose” was not even used. The word was not used until after 1966 and not regularly until the 1970s. Don Draper correctly uses the word nylons which dates back to 1940. But Peggy and other characters incorrectly refer to their stockings as pantyhose.

In fact, in the final episode of the fourth season, a large story line focuses on Peggy acquiring her first account with Topaz pantyhose. In the interview with the potential client, Peggy says, “I can wear Topaz pantyhose with anything. I’m wearing them now, and I’ll change everything but my hose before I go out tonight.” She even proposes as a potential tag line: “Topaz – the only pair of pantyhose you’ll ever need. Bad for business, good for you.” The writers got one thing right. Topaz was an actual brand of nylons in the 1960s, but they weren’t called pantyhose. They were called stockings.

Does this poor word choice shade your perspective of the show and its accuracy?