Did the Aztecs say “tits”?

Do you remember Christmas? It was big a couple of weeks ago. You probably ate a unpleasantly large amount of ill-advised foodstuffs which you probably enjoyed greatly and thought sod it, I’ll go back to the salads in January. You probably remembered that you liked whiskey quite a lot and probably thought it reasonable, or maybe even sensible, to not stop at one but push bravely on to two, hell even three glasses and it wasn’t even ten o clock (in the evening – this is not a social realist screenplay plot). You probably developed epic wind that you tried to blame on other members of your family. You probably had to secretly open a window.

Or (and forgive the crushing, saddening inevitability of this “joke”) maybe that was just me?

I only mention it because whilst lying on my parents’ sofa with a second glass of whiskey in my hand after having just eaten another absurd amount of cheese (have you ever tried Devon Blue? – its name is doubly appropriate, not only is it a blue cheese it is almost porny in its  sumptuousness!) we began watching “The Duchess” on TV. I’d seen the film before, and enjoyed it; Keira Knightly is excellent and Georgiana was indeed a fascinating woman. The book is better though but this is often the case.

I say “watching” I was only really half-watching as I was scribbling a few ideas down at the same time. No that is misleadingly romantic, I was on my laptop looking at trousers on the Debenhams website. Yes, writers wear trousers. Get over it. Once I had made a tentative trouser choice – you can’t rush these things (I eventually plumped, an appropriate verb given the season, for Rocha. John Rocha – so good they named him one and a half times) – I had a brief look at Twitter and discovered the ever brilliant Graham Linehan saying in less than 140 characters that he’d stopped watching The Duchess because one of the very first lines had annoyed him. Or struck him as false. Or both.

Having just checked I’ve discovered it was actually the very first line of the script. Which is as follows (Georgiana is watching some eligible young men in outrageously ruffled shirts have a running race):

GEORGIANA: You’d better not let me down, Charles Grey. I’ve got twenty guineas riding on you.

So what’s the problem? It is not the use of “guineas”. It is not the name. But Linehan is a bloody good writer and he correctly spotted the phrase “riding on you” as horribly anachronistic. I would not have been so eagle-eared.

One of Linehan’s many, many followers then pointed him to a Google service I knew nothing about but one that I’ve spent a long time using since – the Google Ngram Viewer. It is a search tool specific to the millions of books that Google has (controversially) digitised over the past few years. And such is Google’s terrifying power you can analyse these books for the frequency of individual words or phrases. It is quite simply amazing and something of an etymologists wet dream.

Here are the results for the phrase – “riding on you”.

See? Told you it was amazing.

Of course, it is subject to abuse. 1836 must have been a very lonely year for certain gentlemen.

The wider question here is of course, does it matter? Does it matter that these anachronisms slip in to period films for  modern audiences? After all, “Gladiator” is not in Latin. The “Jungle Book” is not in Hindi. We don’t know how anybody actually spoke before the advent of recording technology – did the Romans have silly, high-pitched accents, did the Aztecs say “tits”? (I hope they did. Tits and tomatoes – two linguistic gifts to the world).

But better to be right than wrong I suppose. When I was writing “High Tide” in the summer, I spent ages trying to get the words of a seventeen year old Welsh teenager sounding like, well the words a seventeen year old Welsh teenager. It is hard. But nothing undoes a semblance of realism than obviously fake dialogue.

Anyway, back to looking up rude words on Google. Wow 1881! What a year!

This is terrible. Absolutely terrible. I mean, great idea but come on, do better:

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