Anachronistic language in Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is a TV show currently running on Fox. It reimagines Washington Irving’s classic story by making Ichabod Crane a Revolutionary War soldier who, after decapitating the (now) Headless Horseman, is mortally wounded. He is put into some sort of suspended animation by a witch to awaken in the present-day, 21st-century town of Sleepy Hollow, where he teams up with local law enforcement to fight off a host of supernatural horrors including the (also resurrected) Headless Horseman.

The show playfully uses the introduction of an 18th-century man to the 21st-century world as a way to slacken dramatic tension. Of course (as this show is on American primetime TV), Crane is remarkably enlightened for someone from the 1780’s; he is an abolitionist who, after one surprised comment about women wearing trousers, has no problem with the basic social reality of 21st-century America. But the show constantly uses Crane’s ignorance of 21st-century technology for comic relief; he tosses aside a handgun after firing it once, not realizing it has more bullets; he ends up showering himself with cold water when he tries to investigate modern plumbing; he records voicemails as if writing a letter; computers confound him, and he is flabbergasted by (although perhaps a bit curious about) a popup for sexy internet video chat. This comedy is playful rather than mean-spirited, as Crane excels in other areas his modern counterparts are ignorant of, and he is essential to the fight against the monsters.

In contrast to these playfully acknowledged gaps in understanding, the use of language in the show often contains unacknowledged anachronisms. For example, in episode four Crane asks his partner Abbie about her family history. She replies that her father left them when she was young and her mother had a “nervous breakdown.”


According to Webster, the first known use of “nervous breakdown” is 1905, and of course the term is predicated on an understanding of late 19th-century psychology. Crane, however, is apparently able to understand Abbie and does not even comment on the term.

Crane seems to be very intelligent, and perhaps he could figure that term out from context. However, later in the same episode he asks Abbie’s sister Jenny about her colorful history. Jenny replies that she fought drug lords in Mexico and warlords in Somalia. Crane turns around and says “So you’re a freedom fighter then?”


Again referring to Webster, the first known usage of “freedom fighter” is 1942, and is certainly caught up in the history of World War II and the politics of the Cold War. Yet the 18th-century Crane produces this phrase, clearly an anachronistic use of language.

Some might chalk this up to the writers’ ignorance, but I would object on two fronts. First of all, the writers demonstrate their awareness of the historicization of language. For example, at one point Abbie is about to explain what “John Doe” means, to which Crane replies that he already knows the term, thank you very much, and it was in fact invented in an era prior to his own. Secondly, referring to reader response theory, regardless of the writers’ conscious intention, this language does appear in a narrative product consumed by viewers. Viewers’ perception of the narrative, or the work that the narrative does, exists regardless of the writers’ etymological knowledge.

So what does this anachronistic use of language do? I believe it reduces the distance between the past and the present. How one uses language is wrapped up in one’s philosophy, values and ideology. Sleepy Hollow shows a person from The Revolutionary War able to both use and understand 21st-century language. The Revolutionary War is, of course, a major site of meaning-making for the United States. This show depicts a man from that site of meaning-making comfortable with current language, and therefore implicitly comfortable with the philosophies, values and ideologies of the 21st-century.

I think this is a very postmodern impulse. Linda Hutcheon writes that:


Postmodern intertextuality is a formal manifestation of both a desire to close the gap between past and present of the reader and a desire to rewrite the past in a new context.  It is not a modernist desire to order the present through the past or make the present look spare in contrast to the richness of the past.  It is not an attempt to void or avoid history.  Instead it directly confronts the past of literature – and of historiography. (Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988. p. 118)

From that perspective, the two examples of language use I have presented here are especially significant. In the first example, Crane is apparently conversant in a term from 20th-century psychology. The science of psychology (or at least it’s popular interpretations) plays a major role in the worldview of 21st-century people. It informs even the most basic functions of society and state, such as who is guilty of a crime, how to educate children, and the best way to conduct foreign affairs. Being conversant in the ideas of psychology is indispensable to being a contemporary person, and despite the fact that he comes from a time almost a century before Freud, Sleepy Hollow depicts Crane as just that. He apparently grasps a term from 1905 without trouble. Through this use of language, the show is able to portray someone from 1781 as having the same essential worldview as someone from 2013.

In the same manner, the term “freedom fighter,” which Crane is anachronistically familiar with, is freighted with the history of resistance movements during World War II and the Cold War, as well as the sympathetic attitude many Americans have towards such movements. The term is implicitly pregnant with the global political history of the last sixty years or so, a history which necessarily informs the worldview of 21st-century people. By having Crane use this term, the show is able to imply that a 18th-century person from a prime site of American meaning-making shares the same basic political worldview as 21st-century Americans. It further equates modern freedom fighters and resistance movements with the revolutionary war itself.

Here we can see that anachronistic language in Sleepy Hollow is a postmodern attempt to close the gap between the past and present of the reader. At the same time, it is impossible for the show to actually rewrite the past; it is not a history textbook or authoritative source on history, it is a fictional show about an absurdly time-traveling Ichabod Crane. Instead, it closes that gap by creating an intertext between the past and the present where they can coexist. It explicitly acknowledges its own absurdity with the comic segments that show Crane attempting to learn about modern life, but then uses anachronistic language to re-present the past. The two work in tandem; the comic segments reduce the incompatibility of the past and the present to funny surprises at new technology, while the language demonstrates a fundamental compatibility in worldviews. Because Sleepy Hollow keeps its own absurdity highly visible, it cannot actually rewrite the past, but it does create an intertext that can be layered over discourse about the past to reduce the distance between that past and the present.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s