October 30, 2010
I always enjoy when people recommend books to me, but for some reason it always takes me forever to get around to reading those titles. Ralph Keyes’ “I Love It When You Talk Retro” is a prime example. My friend Jaclyn turned me onto it, probably a year ago, but I just now found time for it in my reading schedule. It’s not like I was dubious about the recommendation since she has told me about several other books that I thoroughly enjoyed. I guess we can just say my procrastination abilities are quite strong. The book is all about retroterms — those words that refer to 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.” In short, something in the past gave us a word we still use today even though few remember the original inspiration for the term. Take “dufus” (or doofus) for example. You’ve called someone a doofus at some point in your life. Probably today. You probably don’t know that — according to Keyes — Dufus was the name of Popeye’s dimwitted nephew. Who knew a spinach-loving sailor could give us such a great word? You have also undoubtedly walked towards a car and yelled “shotgun.” We know what that means in terms of who gets to sit where in the car (regional/personal rules not withstanding), but why do we use the term? Keyes says stagecoaches were at risk of Indian attacks, “therefore many companies employed a security guard who sat next to the driver on an elevated perch outside the wagon, shotgun at the ready.” The guard was known as “the shotgun.” So next time you’re sitting in that seat, be ready to repel an Indian attack. With my apologies for getting the song stuck in your head, anyone who has seen the Showtime show “Weeds” is familiar with the term “ticky tacky.” It comes from the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes” and in terms of the show, perfectly captures the rows upon rows of identical houses filled with people who seem perfectly alike. As Keyes says, ticky tacky “has been our preferred catchphrase for uniform homes and those thought to live in them.” Other than giving us the idea of “drinking the Kool-Aid,” “Jonestown” is used as a way to describe cultlike experiences. In many of the entries, Keyes gives a contemporary example of the word’s usage in a newspaper, TV show, book or magazine. For Jonestown, he describes how it is used by a character in Nick Hornby’s “How to be Good,” which happens to be one of the better books I have read in the past few years. Keyes also talks about using “breadbox” as a comparative measurement rather than an actual place to store bread. While I have never heard anyone say something is “as big as a breadbox,” the term did bring to mind a tangentially interesting point about the habits we inherit from our parents. Not long ago I was talking to my mom about something and the topic of having bugs in your house came up. Back in the day, she lived in an apartment that had a bug problem (roaches?), which led her to start storing her bread in the refrigerator. I have always put my bread in the fridge, but only because that’s the way we did it when I was growing up. Good to learn there was an actual reason, even if the original issue is long forgotten.