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A guide to the dating lingo of Downton Abbey


21st Sep 2019 Film & TV

A guide to the dating lingo of Downton Abbey

Forget "ghosting" and "sexting", add some old school class to your love life using this ultimate guide to the dating language of Downton Abbey.

Dating in the modern age is a minefield. Smartphones, dating apps, text speak and modern euphemisms have made courtship easier yet simultaneously more difficult. Is your latest match caspering you? Are you only settling down because it's cuffing season? Or perhaps you’re being submarined? As language and technology evolve, it’s increasingly hard to know where you stand with your prospective partner.  

In contrast, the dating lives of Downton Abbey’s Crawley family and their staff seem fairly straightforward. Despite scandal, adultery, death and fortune hunters, everyone from the ill-fated Lady Edith to radical kitchen maid, Daisy, found their happy ending. Euphemisms were also popular in the early twentieth century, however, are these turns of phrase any easier to decode? We asked the experts at leading language learning app Babbel to walk us through some of the dating lines from Downton, to see if it really was a simpler time for courting.

"Coming out"

Lady Rose’s coming out at Buckingham Palace was an unforgettable moment.

Now used to describe someone expressing their sexuality, in 1923 the term "coming out" meant something entirely different. It was used to describe the process of débutantes (girls of around 16-18 years of age) being presented to society, showing that they were available for marriage and openly looking for a suiter.

The tradition was primarily for the aristocratic or upper-classes, as "debs" would have to apply for the privilege, and acceptance meant being presented to the court of the reigning sovereign. Coming out balls were seen as the start of the social season—the time when society’s elite would hold balls, dinner parties, and charity events.



"Make a pass"

Early in their courtship, Lady Mary said to Henry Talbot, “I hope this means you’re boiling up to make a pass”.

The term to "make a pass" is still used today; however, it has a slightly different meaning than nearly 100 years ago. While now it’s often seen as a negative term to describe unwanted advances, in the 1920s, making a pass was to make a wanted amorous advance. It was used to indicate attraction while refraining from more vulgar phraseology. 


"Led him up the garden path" 

Daisy Lewis, on letting William Mason think she was in love with him.

To lead someone down (or up) the garden path is to deceive or mislead someone into thinking you’re interested in them. It’s thought to originate in pre-twentieth century England when many village homes had gardens or vegetable plots that were a complicated web of trails or pathways, hard to navigate and often causing frustration.

By 1926, this phrase had been given a more saucy meaning when Ethel Mannin's novel, Sounding Brass referenced women leading men "up the garden" for the purposes of seduction. Today the term has morphed into the more familiar "leading someone on" or "stringing someone along". 

"Mystery of life"

Mrs Patmore, discussing Mrs Hughes’ honeymoon
Speaking to Daisy about Mrs Hughes’ honeymoon with Mr Carson, Mrs Patmore euphemistically suggests that she “knows the mystery of life by now”. A rather cute description, "the mystery of life" is usually thought of as “love”; however, in this instance, it is used to imply that Mrs Hughes will have lost her virginity while away.


"Gentleman caller" 

Lady Mary has many a gentleman caller, following the death of Matthew Crawley

A gentleman caller would typically visit a woman’s family home, with a view to enquiring as to her availability, and to establish if there is a mutual romantic interest. Often, he would visit a lady’s father, having heard rumour of his daughter’s situation and, if deemed worthy, introductions would be made.

While nowadays receiving a gentleman caller would indicate more than just a reconnaissance mission, back then it didn’t equate to a first date. It was more akin to that first conversation after crossing paths with someone on Happn.