February 7, 2010
From pink slips to red tape, from asking “Where’s the beef?” to looking a gift horse in the mouth, American English has thousands of interesting colloquialisms. Benchmarks are still vital today, but who remembers that they were once small metal markers placed in the ground by surveyors?
Ralph Keyes does. The author of three books about writing, Keyes takes on the slang of the past century and beyond in his fascinating if overnamed book, “I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech.”
“Today’s 18-year-old may not know who Mrs. Robinson is, the size of a breadbox or why ‘going postal’ refers to a major uproar,” says the back-cover blurb. Fair enough. But the book is anything but archaic. There’s plenty of relatively recent pop culture—from “You talkin’ to me?” to “I’ll have what she’s having.”