Faster Times February 25, 2010
Ralph Keyes is the author of fifteen books, but in some ways his most recent one—“I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech”—seems like the one he was born to write. Having authored the 1977 exploration “Is There Life After High School?” (which was adapted into a musical that ran briefly on Broadway, and is still regularly produced around the country) and boasting an impressive, unexpected personal collection of vintage toasters, Keyes is clearly fascinated with the past. This latest book puts that preoccupation to practical use, giving us a tour of the often strange and sticky origins of the things we say—and can’t stop saying.
“I Love it When You Talk Retro” is a guide to the traces of history that lace our daily conversations, bringing together a vast array of “retroterms” with wildly different meanings and origins. These “verbal fossils”—like “red tape,” “carpetbagger,” “the 800-pound gorilla,” and “ditto”—all have their own stories, which often fall away after they start being regularly used. As we get further from their sources, we become more alienated from what we’re saying.
The past sneaks into our present in unexpected ways, and often we don’t even realize our part in perpetuating it. There’s something poignant about the idea that so much of what we say derives from things that are lost, obsolete, or misunderstood. “I Love it When You Talk Retro” is a dictionary of pseudo-foreign phrases, a bridge between generations, and a serious treat for word nerds. I talked to Keyes about why retroterms matter, why Boomers speak in code, and why we’re all still haunted by high school.
You look at a huge number of terms in this book. How did you choose which ones to explore?
For years I’ve been jotting things down as I heard them. I’d think, “How would my kids know what that means? How would a new immigrant understand the context of that phrase?” Whenever I would hear something that raised that question, I’d make a note of it. Eventually it was a list of thousands.
From there, what was your research process like?
I started out planning to do pop culture: TV shows, song lyrics, old ads. The more I got into it, the more I realized how many words and phrases went a lot further back than that. The book just about killed me. I ended up with a manuscript about three times as long as it was supposed to be.
Many of the phrases I was thinking about were the ones you think everyone knows—like “waiting for the other shoe to drop”—but invariably, you find out they don’t. Or they might know what it means, but they don’t know where it came from. Then I began to see ones I hadn’t heard of myself: Paul Krugman wrote, “There must be a pony in there somewhere,” as a way of referring to unwarranted optimism. I’d never heard of it before, so I looked it up and found a huge number of references to this story: A young boy is confronted by a huge mound of manure, and rather than being put off like most of us, he dives right in. Someone asks him why, and he says, “With this much manure, there must be a pony in there somewhere.”
I’ve been keeping more recent track of Maureen Dowd—I call her the Queen of Retrotalk, because she’s constantly using retroterms. But she’s not unique. Reporters of a certain age are constantly tossing around these Boomer-era allusions as if everyone knows what they refer to.
It’s partly a matter of style: She’s trying to brand herself as a certain kind of writer with a certain kind of knowledge. I guess she assumes that it’s an advantage, but you’re pointing out that it can really be alienating.
I compare it to talking to someone who’s always throwing French or Latin phrases into conversation. It always makes me feel left out and ignorant. I think, in a way, that’s part of the point—when those of my generation make reference to things that we grew up with, we’re as much as saying to people a lot younger than us, “This is a private conversation. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, the heck with you. Haven’t you got some twittering to do?” It becomes a kind of a generational freeze-out, a way of, probably unconsciously, celebrating generational solidarity–especially for Boomers.
How important do you think it is for us to know the roots of these expressions? Well, it keeps you in the conversation.
I don’t think it’s an imperative. It makes you more cognizant of what’s being discussed around you. And it’s more fun to know what they refer to: we get the gist of a lot of these things, but we don’t necessarily know their origins.
I knew what “gerrymander” meant—to fiddle with the shape of a congressional district to favor one candidate or another—but I had no idea where it came from. It turns out it goes back to the early 19th century, when the governor of Massachusetts, Eldridge Gerry, presided over a redistricting and some very weirdly shaped districts [resulted]. A cartoonist drew a picture of a congressional district shaped like a salamander, and he called it the “Gerry-mander.” It caught on. A lot of these phrases come out of events, and then they’re kind of fun to say, and nothing better comes along to replace them, so we still talk about them.
The Boomers’ frame of reference is very TV-centric, because they spent so much time in front of the television. It raises an interesting question: What will be the retroterms of the Internet generation? My son, who’s 23, spends a lot more time in front of a computer screen than a TV screen. Probably a lot of the phrases he’ll use will confound his grandkids, and will come out of the Internet and computer-ese.
It does seem like a never-ending cycle of misunderstandings.
My kids are seven years apart—one’s 30 and one’s 23—and I think phrases familiar to the older one aren’t necessarily familiar to the younger one. It used to take a generation for terms to become obsolete, but as everything else is accelerating, I think the rate at which terms become obsolete has accelerated.
At the same time, the Internet keeps a more public, centralized record of what things used to mean, which could be helpful.
Yeah, it’s so easy to look things up now. That was one problem I had writing this book. I’ve been writing word or quotation-oriented books for a couple of decades, but twenty years ago it meant a lot of traipsing around the library, making phone calls, reading old magazines and newspapers—which was very demanding, but it was a real detective game. Then, the challenge was to maximize your data. Now you have a whole different challenge, which is to minimize, to put borders on what you’re accessing.
What inspired you to write your book “Is There Life After High School?”
I had all these strong leftover feelings about high school, and my classmates, about what happened to me there, and what I wish had happened. I remember walking down the path to the mailbox and coming back with an envelope that said up in the corner “CHS Class of ’62,” and I opened it up and unfolded this piece of paper and it said, “Reunion Time!” This was ten years after I’d graduated. My hands started trembling, my heart started pounding, my cheeks were flushed. I was struck by how strong my feelings were, my ambivalence about going to a reunion. I mean, for crying out loud, it’s high school, ten years ago—why is my heart racing?
I started talking to friends and reading up on celebrities about their high school experiences. Everyone I talked to had their own memories and resentments and second thoughts and regrets, things they wish they hadn’t said, things they wish they had said, people they wish they could have gone out with, fights they wish they had won…the list is endless. I called up Robert Logue, and said, “Mr. Logue, I hear you’re the guy who beat Richard Nixon for Senior Class president at Whittier High School in the 30’s.” There was a long pause at the other end of the line. He says, “That was student body president.” So we really do remember, and I was really able to unload the weight of my high school memories by writing that book.
Tell me about your toaster collection. Why toasters?
My mother-in-law had this gorgeous, shiny sunbeam toaster from 1938. I always admired it. One day we went to visit her and the toaster wasn’t in the kitchen. I asked where it was, and she said, “Oh, it broke, I threw it down the incinerator.” That turns out to be a common collectors’ syndrome, where something you really wanted got away from you, and you try to replace it. So I kept my eyes open for other toasters. There are serious toaster collectors out there; they have a toaster collectors association, they have a newsletter, they hold conventions. I try to just have fun with it, and I try not to spend too much money on my toasters. As you can see from the pictures, I’ve got, I think, about sixty at this point. I also have hairdryers and blenders and cocktail shakers and waffle irons and stuff like that.
I think I’m a 30’s guy, even though I was born in ‘45. There’s something about that whole pre-war era that fascinates me. Some of the design of the early toasters is phenomenal—they’re just chrome-y and curvy and shiny…I just like them. And I love showing off my toasters to visitors to our house. We go down to the basement, and there’s this reaction like, “what in the world are you collecting toasters for?” But they love to go over there and see, “Oh, we used to have one like this!”
Incidentally, I tried to get a book together called the “Tao of Toasters,” about the role toasters play in our culture. My agent didn’t think she could sell it.
Eryn Loeb has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Salon, Bookforum, the L Magazine, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications, and is a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine. Since 2005, she has written the ”Girl, Interrupting” column for Bookslut.com, taking a monthly look at how feminism lives (and dies) on the page. She lives in New York.