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THE WORD

Time Bandits

``IT'S UNLIKELY THAT even the most hard-boiled dick would have talked about Superman getting 'offed' in the Howdy Doody era," wrote Ken Eisner last month in the Canadian newsweekly Georgia Straight, charging the movie ``Hollywoodland" with anachronism.

``I don't think Elizabeth Bennet would have used the phrase 'what you're going through,' nor do I think Mr. Darcy would prate on about 'our relationship,"' wrote blogger Rachel (newness-of-life.com) after seeing last year's film version of ``Pride and Prejudice."

And Allegra Goodman, reviewing Jennifer Gilmore's novel ``Golden Country" in The New York Times, also spotted some time-warping: ``At David and Miriam's wedding in 1957, David stands and toasts his bride: 'To my beautiful wife' and adds the great catch phrase from 'Jerry Maguire' of the 1990s: 'The woman who completes me.' This sort of glitch is distracting."

Yes, anachronism-spotting is excellent sport. William Safire, in his syndicated language column, has publicized several collars by the time police: There was ``corridors of power" in ``Chariots of Fire," a film set at the 1924 Olympics--40 years before the phrase was coined. ``It's a wrap," which dates from the '50s, shows up in Martin Scorsese's ``The Aviator" in a scene set in 1930. The CBS miniseries ``Sally Hemings: An American Scandal" had Thomas Jefferson saying ``This is a skull fragment of the humongous mastodon"--though humongous didn't walk the earth till the 1960s.

But separating the time-appropriate words from the trespassers is harder than it looks.

Take the complaint about ``Hollywoodland," for instance. The slang offed, for ``killed," may not have been widespread in 1959--the year George Reeves, the movie's subject, died--but Cassell's slang dictionary dates the word to the '50s, and it's in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, by 1967. So maybe a tough detective would have used it, even back in Howdy Doody time; if the scriptwriter is jumping the gun, it's not by much.

And though it's true that Mr. Darcy would not have prated about a romantic ``relationship"--that sense of the word dates only to the 1940s--``go through" has a stronger defense. It was already used to mean ``suffer" in 1813, when ``Pride and Prejudice" was published--as our heroine herself, addressing her sister Jane, illustrates in the novel: ``'But you--How are you?' cried Elizabeth. 'You look pale. How much you must have gone through!"'

As for ``the woman who completes me"--well, maybe it wasn't a plausible wedding toast for that fictional '50s couple, but the wording wasn't exactly fresh when the ``Jerry Maguire" screenwriter used it. Thanks to Google Book Search, there are examples at our fingertips:

``I hope, for my part, never to be unworthy of him, and we shall be able to complete each other mutually."--Mme. de Stael's daughter Albertine, writing of her husband-to-be in an 1816 letter.

``Sir Willoughby is a splendid creature, only wanting a wife to complete him."--George Meredith, in his hilarious (and underappreciated) 1879 novel ``The Egoist."

``They were made for one another. It was predestined that they should meet and love. She was what he needed to complete him."--Don Marquis, in 1922's ``Revolt of the Oyster."

``Nothing mattered to him but that she should come and complete him. ...It was as if he ended uncompleted, as yet uncreated."--D.H. Lawrence, in ``The Rainbow" (1915).

And of course Plato had something to say--long ago, and in another country--about humans being pathetic halves of their former perfect selves, longing for their missing complements.

I'm not suggesting that any of these expressions sounded exactly the same to past generations as they do to us. But it's easy to overgeneralize--to assume that because ``our relationship" is 20th-century psychobabble, ``what you're going through" must be too. This looks like a variant of what linguist Arnold Zwicky has dubbed the Recency Illusion--the impression that a usage you've recently noticed is in fact new.

Nobody is immune to the error, says Zwicky, who has a series of posts on the subject at Language Log (languagelog.org). Even the OED is filled with guesses about frequency, and none should be trusted as conclusive.

Nowadays, of course, even amateurs can run background checks on a lot of suspicious phrases. Classic texts abound on the Web; libraries have the OED; subscribers to the Globe and The New York Times can search those papers' archives (in the Times's case, to the mid-19th century). So by all means, let's nail the perpetrators of careless verbal anachronisms. But before pronouncing sentence, we'd do well to look at the evidence.

E-mail freeman@globe.com. For four weeks' worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman.

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