The Grammarphobia Blog

Downton’s steep learning curve

Q: If I type “anachronisms” in a Google search box, Autocomplete suggests adding the words “downton abbey.” So this is not an original topic, but I spotted two possible slip-ups in a recent episode: “learning curve” and “a lot on my plate.”

A: Yes, anachronism-spotting has become something of a sport to watchers of Downton Abbey, and now we can chalk up a couple more.

The period TV drama is set in the years between 1912 and 1921, and it’s highly unlikely people who lived then would have known either “learning curve” or “a lot on my plate.”

Let’s look at “learning curve” first. It’s barely possible that a layman in 1920s England would have known the term, but it’s quite a stretch.

The phrase was in use at the time, in scholarly papers by research psychologists who used it in its literal, scientific sense—a curved line on a graph, representing the rate at which a certain skill is learned.

It’s even less likely that the expanded form of the phrase heard on the show—“steep learning curve”—would have been used then.

The linguist Ben Zimmer has also been following Downton anachronisms, and he had this to say in a recent Word Routes column on his Visual Thesaurus website:

“Matthew Crawley, the presumptive heir of Downton Abbey and now the co-owner of the estate, says, ‘I’ve been on a steep learning curve since arriving at Downton.’ By this he means that he’s had a difficult time learning the ways of Downton. Unfortunately, people didn’t start talking that way until the 1970s.”

Although the term “learning curve” was around in the early 1900s, Zimmer notes, “it didn’t become a common phrase until the ’70s, and it was then that the word steep began to be used to modify it in a rather peculiar way.” A “steep learning curve,” he says, came to mean “an arduous climb.”

He says “learning curve” was apparently first recorded in 1903 in a paper published in the American Journal of Psychology. This is also the earliest usage we’ve been able to find.

The author of the 1903 paper, Edgar James Swift, wrote: “Bryan and Harter (6) found in their study of the acquisition of the telegraphic language a learning curve which had the rapid rise at the beginning followed by a period of retardation, and was thus convex to the vertical axis.”

We checked out the earlier study that Swift refers to, but it didn’t actually use the term “learning curve,” so his usage does appear to be the first.

That earlier study, by William Lowe Bryan and Noble Harter of Indiana University, was published in the Psychological Review in 1897.

The article, “Studies in the Physiology and Psychology of the Telegraphic Language,” described experiments to determine the rates at which telegraph operators learned to send and to receive messages in Morse code.

Bryan and Harter used lines plotted on graphs to illustrate the rates at which the skills were learned. They described the lines with phrases like “sending curve,” “receiving curve,” and “curve of improvement,” but they never used “learning curve.”

Many people credit the concept of a learning curve—if not the phrase itself—to studies in memory published in 1885 by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.

But his work doesn’t include the words Lernkurve or Erfahrungskurve, either of which might be translated into English as “learning curve.”

The Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t yet updated its entry for “learning curve” to reflect the earlier usages now available in digitized data banks.

The OED’s earliest example is from a paper published in 1922, and it defines only the literal meaning of the term: “a graph showing progress in learning.”

All of Oxford’s citations for “learning curve” use the phrase in this scientific sense, and the dictionary doesn’t mention any figurative uses.

The other expression you’re asking about, “a lot on my plate,” is another likely anachronism in Downton Abbey. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1928, and we haven’t found an earlier one.

The OED labels the phrase and its variants as colloquialisms meaning “to have a lot of things occupying one’s time or energy.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from the July 4, 1928, issue of a British newspaper, the Daily Express: “I cannot say. I have a lot on my plate. … Mr. Justice Horridge: A lot on your plate! What do you mean? Elton Pace: A lot of worry, my lord.”

This more contemporary example is from Dermot Bolger’s novel Ladies’ Night at Finbar’s Hotel (1999): “I have enough on my plate without worrying about you.”

Want to hear about more Downton Abbey anachronisms? Ben Zimmer has spoken on NPR’s “Morning Edition” about some others, like “I’m just sayin’ ” and “When push comes to shove.”

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