Like millions of TV viewers in the US and the UK, I’ve been under the spell of “Downton Abbey,” the period drama originally produced for Britain’s ITV and rebroadcast in the US on PBS. We’re now three episodes into Season 2, which opens in the middle of World War I and shuttles between a grand Yorkshire estate and the trenches of war-torn France. The attention to detail in clothing, automobiles, home furnishings, and telephones is extraordinary. The dialogue, however, isn’t always quite as authentic.
One out-of-place usage caught my attention in Episode 3, which aired last Sunday: contact as a verb meaning “to communicate with.” I heard it spoken twice: once by Cousin Isobel Crawley (at 10:09*: “I’ll try to contact Captain Crawley and explain to him what happened”) and once by Lord Grantham (at 25:35: “I don’t know how to contact her”).
By coincidence, I had recently researched the history of to contact for a column in the Visual Thesaurus, so I knew its use in “Downton Abbey” wasn’t just slightly amiss but grossly anachronistic.
Contact has been documented as a verb since 1834, but for decades it had a single meaning: to place in a such a manner that surfaces are touching. (That’s the literal meaning of the Latin root words.) The metaphorical sense of to contact—“to communicate with”—wasn’t recorded until 1927, and then only as an American colloquialism. The colloquial usage was still scandalous in Britain in 1935, when Sir Alan Patrick Herbert wrote What a Word! (wonderfully subtitled “Being an account of the principles and progress of ‘the word war’ conducted in ‘Punch’, to the great improvement and delight of the people, and the lasting benefit of the king’s English, with many ingenious exercises and horrible examples”). “A charming lady in the publicity business shocked me when we parted,” wrote Sir Alan, “by saying ‘It has been such fun contacting you.’”
Brits continued tsk-tsking about to contact for years. Here’s Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage, first published in 1947:
If you feel that without this American synonym for ‘to establish contact with’ or, more idiomatically, ‘get in(to) touch with’ [a person], life would be too unutterably drear and bleak and ‘grim’, do at least say or write ‘to contact a person’, not contact with … Extremes of fashion bring their own corrective, and contact,the great word of the era of sales promotion and consolidation, shows signs of retiring to its proper place.
Fat chance, although the No Contact crowd had plenty of sympathizers on this side of the Atlantic, too. In The Careful Writer, originally published in 1965, Theodore Bernstein dismissed contact as “a fad word.” And Wilson Follett found it necessary to devote two hand-wringing columns to “contact, verb” in Modern American Usage (1966). An excerpt reveals the emotional valence of the dispute:
Persons old enough to have been repelled by the verb contact when it was still a crude neologism may as well make up their minds that there is no way to arrest or reverse the tide of its popularity. Persons young enough to have picked up the word without knowing that anyone had reservations about it may as well make up their minds that a considerable body of their elders abominate it and would despise themselves if they succumbed to the temptation to use it. …
If in doubt, contact your physician — this locution is as natural to the American of thirty as it is grotesque to the American of sixty, for whom the idea of surfaces touching is the essence of contact. The elderly can therefore see no fitness and no use for the word in its new sense, when the vocabulary already provides consult, ask, approach, get in touch with, confer with, and simply see.
“Repelled,” “crude,” “abominate,” “despise, “grotesque”—if those were the words being applied to contact in 1966, one can scarcely imagine the pearl-clutching, if not outright apoplexy, that would have resulted from its utterance in 1918.
Today, of course, we’ve made our peace with to contact and shifted our contempt to reach out. “Why not just say contact?” the peevers complain. Plus ça change.
For a discussion of other anachronistic language in “Downton Abbey,” see this article in the Daily Mail (UK), which considers the idioms “everything is rosy in the garden,” “get knotted,” and “logic pills,” all of which were unfamiliar to me. Meanwhile, in a recent Language Log post, linguist Mark Liberman took a look at “Just sayin’,” which was spoken in a DA episode set in 1916. Oh, and here’s that Visual Thesaurus column I wrote about reach out and contact.
* The current episodes will be online through the end of the season. After that, you’ll have to rent or buy the DVD.