Florida Weekly July 29, 2009
THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE IS A RICH AND COLORFUL thing, full of strange words and unusual phrases.
NANCY STETSON [email protected]
“One thing I like about language is the way it reflects our culture, our social history,” says writer Ralph Keyes (his last name rhymes with eyes.) “There’s just endless variation and I think revelation about ourselves in the way we speak, the words we use.”
Mr. Keyes, perhaps best known for his bestseller “Is There Life After High School?” which was made into a Broadway musical, recently released “I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech.” ($25.95, St. Martin’s Press) Retrotalk, or retroterms, he says, are words or phrases that make sense to people of the same era, but may not make sense to younger generations, or to immigrants.
For example, he writes, “Retrotalk is a slippery slope of puzzling allusions to past phenomena. Such allusions take the form of retroterms, verbal artifacts that hang around in our national conversation long after the topic they refer to has galloped into the sunset. They are verbal fossils, ones that outlive the organism that made their impression in the first place. They could be a person, a product, a past bestseller, an old radio or TV show, an athletic contest, a comic strip, an acronym, or an advertisement long forgotten.”
Think of it as looking at the generation gap from a different angle. Each new generation has always formed their own slang and catch-phrases, partially in order to differentiate themselves from their elders.
But the older generation’s phrases and common terms of reference may be equally indecipherable to those younger.
For example, he says that cultural references such as “you sound like a broken record,” “stuck in a groove,” “45 rpm” “flip side” and “B-side” might not make any sense to a generation that uses iPods.
They might not know what “bigger than a breadbox” means, or “98-pound weakling,” what Watergate was, or why you shouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Mr. Keyes’s son Scott was born right after the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster occurred in Ukraine.
And when he was in middle school, he went up to his mother and asked, “Mom, who’s this Cher Noble I keep hearing about?”
“Isn’t that funny?” Mr. Keyes says. “And so understandable.
“I saw a movie once, it might have been ‘Raising Arizona.’ And this young woman goes into a motel, closes the door. And it’s an old motel, and has a rotary phone. She looks at it and scowls, and then she picks up the receiver and starts punching the holes in the dial! It’s like, ‘Come on, why isn’t this working?’
“But think about the terms we still use that are related to actually dialing a rotary phone: dial tone. Dial-up service to get onto the Internet. Dial for dollars. These are all based on an obsolete technology. And that’s the esssence of a retroterm.”
Some old words are applied to new products, he says. For example, dashboard used to refer to an “angled board used to protect buggy users from the muddy backspash of horses’ hooves.” Now we use it for the inside panel of a car behind the steering wheel. And Mac computer users know the term as something that shows mini-applications called widgets.
In his book, Mr. Keyes writes that “new circumstances demand new words, however, and Americans have always been up to the task of supplying them. A recurring question in this book is why some endure as retroterms while others don’t.”
He comes up with a list. Retroterms strike a chord, fill a void, excite strong feeling and are fun to say. “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” didn’t last as long as a catch-phrase, but “Where’s the beef?” did. Orwellian, he says, is more fun to say than Kiplingesque. And words such as “cootie,” “rope-a-dope,” “sizzle” and “bimbo” are just fun to say.
But even those of the same generation might not understand all retroterms. In one humorous story in “I Love It When You Talk Retro,” Mr. Keyes recounts the story of an older woman who saw the word “Ka-ching!” in a headline. She thought the term came from China, so asked all her Asian friends what it meant, not realizing it was the sound an old manual cash register makes.
Mr. Keyes’s favorite phrase is “98- pound weakling.”
“I grew up reading comic books with these Charles Atlas ads, where Max, the 98-pound weakling, got sand kicked in his face,” he says. (After going through the Charles Atlas plan, Max returns to beat up the bully and win the girl.)
“And I like some of these where I had to learn (their origins),” he says. “For example, scuttlebutt was the water barrel where sailors gathered on ships. The barrel was called the butt, and the hole where you got the water out of was called the scuttle. They would share gossip like people did over watercoolers later on. That was fun to learn.”
The book was originally three times the size; Mr. Keyes had to whittle it down to a more manageable length. Still, it’s chock full of stories of how certain words and phrases came to be, words such as gizmo, chop chop, cold turkey, blue stocking, mug shot, cut a rug and nudge nudge, wink wink.
In the B’s alone it refers to Babbitt, Barney Fife, Big Brother, Blanche DuBois, Bonnie and Clyde, the Boston Strangler, Buck Rogers and Buster Brown.
His fascination with retrotalk, Mr. Keyes says, “is the way that the words and phrases which we use are so indicative of our generation, or what time we grew up in. And I think the catchphrases we rely on are just as ingrained as when we’re young as our taste in music, our hairstyle, and the clothes we wear. And that’s what I try to talk about in ‘I Love It When You Talk Retro.'”