The Grammarphobia Blog

Mad Mentality

Q: In one of the scenes from Mad Men, purportedly set in a bar in 1964, some guy says, “Can I get a Dewar’s with water?” Now, I don’t remember people saying “Can I get” a drink back then. It sounds more 21st century to me.

A: It may sound 21st century to you, but people have been using “Can I get” that way since at least the late 19th century.

For example, an article in the June 20, 1880, issue of the Daily Arkansas Gazette includes this example of the usage:

“A footstep didn’t arouse the young lady. It was a voice that said: ‘Can I get a drink of water?’ Two arms and the chin of a tramp leaned on the fence.”

For a boozier example, a brief item in the Oct. 12, 1889, issue of the Knoxville Journal has this presumably fictional exchange:

“Traveler (from Kentucky): ‘Madam, can I get a drink here?’

“Lady of the House: ‘Certainly, there’s the well.’

“Traveler (with a courtly gesture): ‘Madam, you misunderstand me. I don’t want to wash my hands; I want a drink.’ ”

From what we can gather, the expression has been in steady use since then, so there’s nothing anachronistic about hearing it on Mad Men.

In case you’re interested, we wrote a blog item not long ago about a similar usage, “I’ll do a” (as in “I’ll do a Dewar’s with water”).

As you probably know, finding linguistic anachronisms in Mad Men has become something of an indoor sport among the show’s fans.

The linguist Ben Zimmer wrote an entertaining column on the subject a year ago in the New York Times Magazine.

Zimmer spoke with Matthew Weiner, the creator, executive producer, and head writer of the AMC show, who acknowledged that goofs do indeed slip into Mad Men.

For example, the character Joan used the saying “The medium is the message” in the first season, set in 1960, four years before Marshall McLuhan introduced it in print.

You’ll enjoy this YouTube video featuring Mad Men excerpts mentioned in Zimmer’s column.

Cheers!

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