The past, even the recent past, is a foreign country, and, as Mad Men reminds us, they speak a foreign language there:
It’s in business language, though, that Mad Men really shows its weaknesses. Modern boardroom language creeps in with striking regularity. Take the verb “leverage,” for example. Last season, Pete Campbell angrily reported that Philip Morris used Sterling-Cooper “to leverage a sweeter deal” from another agency. Leverage presumably sounded like a hard-nosed business term in the table read; but it comes from banking, and hard as it may be to remember, investment bankers did not always rule the roost of American business. Widespread use of “to leverage” metaphorically is a creation of Reagan’s America, not Kennedy’s. Don Draper and his peers in grey flannel suits looked out on a dull, relatively unimportant banking sector; for them, leverage meant debt as much as it meant power. Not only is the individual phrase wrong; so is the whole field of metaphor. Talking like an investment banker would have had approximately the allure of talking like an accountant.
Business vernacular seems to trip up the writers again and again. Draper’s new contract in season three includes a “signing bonus,” a phrase that was extremely rare outside of sports (the staid “bonus for signing” was far more common); Paul Kinsey is urged to “keep a low profile” at a meeting in 1963, a phrase that spread like wildfire only in 1969; and in season four Honda sets a series of rules to “even the playing field” in a competition, a phrase that (along with the more common “level the playing field”) seems to have entered the boardroom around 1977.
It’s not only business, though. There are scores of idioms that are strikingly modern. “Feel good about,” “match made in heaven,” “tough act to follow,” “make eye contact,” “fantasize about”; all are at least tenfold more common today than in Mad Men‘s times. Any of these individually might be perfectly plausible; but for “feel good about,” for example, to be said four separate times over the course of the show by several different characters is extraordinarily unlikely. Such flaws aren’t just anecdotal; shows and movies from the 1960s, written by writers with as sure a grasp of the spoken language as Weiner, have far fewer outliers from the print corpus than their modern imitators. The Twilight Zone, for example, doesn’t use “feel good about” once in over 100 episodes.
What seems to be the most ubiquitous mistake in Mad Men is so frequent as to be invisible: the phrase “I need to.” Modern scripts set in 1960s, including Mad Men, use it constantly: it’s about as frequent as everyday words like “good,” “between,” or “most.” But to say “I need to” so much is a surprisingly modern practice: books, television shows, and movies from the 1960s use it at least ten times less often, and many never use it all. Sixties dialogue written back then used “ought to” far more often than modern imitators do. I checked several movies and TV seasons from 1960 to 1965, and all use “ought to” more often than “need to”; every modern show I could find set in the ’60s does the reverse. Google Ngrams shows the trend clearly as well.