The “Mad Men” Vocabulary

This month Mad Men, AMC’s hugely popular period drama about advertising in 1960’s and early 70’s New York City, concluded its eight year run as the critically acclaimed darling of contemporary American cable television. In the series finale Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, said goodbye to the core of characters he’s spent some eighty hours (92 episodes) developing with the same slick eloquence with which he introduced them. Don Draper, Mad Men’s flawed protagonist, left just as he entered : alone, seated, pondering how best to word a commerical idea. The concluding scene was a reminder that for all the many themes the show has explored since first airing in 2007, Mad Men was built on an appreciation of language.

The argot of Weiner’s 60’s advertising world is a mix of highbrow wit and commercialized idealism. The characters speak with an articulate brevity largely unfamiliar to the modern American ear. Often the lines ostensibly designed to address some personal or business concern end up sounding like the snappy ads the characters are trying to create. The writing is succinct and persuasive, big ideas boiled down to single-sentence truisms. When Pete Campbell, a well-bred account executive, learns that he has been passed over for promotion, he says to his boss, « I hope it was a difficult decision. » When Peggy Olson, a striving copywriter, gathers the courage to tell Don that she’d appreciate a little appreciation from him, Don replies, « That’s what the money’s for. »

In Mad Men, even the most difficult situations seem neutralized, to some degree, by a well-turned phrase. Rarely does a character meet hardship verbally unarmed. Weiner’s characters are distinct, each with his or her own set of demons, but what they share is a smart, elevated vocabulary for dealing with the challenges they face.

This style of speaking runs contrary to most representations of 1960’s American speech. The familiar, loose language of hippies and baby-boomers disenchanted with the ideas handed down to them from the World War II generation is observed but not at all central to Mad Men. Weiner doesn’t ignore Kennedy or the civil rights movement or the moon landing or the Vietnam War, but no matter how large the historical event he never allows it to eclipse the battle taking place inside Don and Co.’s ad agency. Those battles, waged with distinguished language, have provided seven years’ worth of compelling television drama. Perhaps fittingly, the show ended with a jingle.