Our national conversation is filled with historical allusions: Ponzi schemes, smoke-filled rooms, talking turkey, even Harry and Louise (to say nothing of Thelma and Louise). Those who know the history of these allusions tend to assume everyone else does. But everyone doesn’t. Younger inquiring minds want to know: Who was Hobson and what was his choice? Why does zipless have sexual overtones? What’s the big deal about drinking Kool-Aid? And who is this Cher Noble that newscasters keep referring to when they discuss nuclear power plants?
When we use such retro-references, history provides the platform that we speak from. Or, one might say, the stump. Early settlers who saw Indian leaders addressing tribe members while standing on a stump adopted the practice themselves, giving what we still call stump speeches.
Much political terminology is rooted in long-forgotten events, reaching as far back as Elbridge Gerry. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and onetime vice president, as governor of Massachusetts Gerry presided over the redrawing of his state’s congressional districts in 1812. Gerry’s party designed these districts to favor themselves. Their results were quite creative. A Boston Gazette cartoon portrayed one reconfigured district shaped like a dragon-salamander. It was called “the Gerry-mander: A New Species of Monster.” This term caught the public’s fancy. Converted to a verb, gerrymander is what we still call the tortured redrawing of electoral districts to favor those in power. It is a classic retroterm.
Retroterms refer to events from our past that made a big enough impression to stick around in memory. They are an excellent barometer of what mattered most to us during a given period of history: what resonated, struck our fancy, or simply tickled our funny bone.
One colonial-era tale involved a white hunter and an Indian hunter who join forces to shoot several crows and wild turkeys. When it comes time to divide their catch, the white man gives his companion all the crows while keeping every turkey. The incensed Indian protests. “You talk all turkey for you,” he says. “You never once talk turkey for me! Now I talk turkey to you.” The Indian then takes his fair share of turkeys. This story was so popular in nineteenth-century America that talk turkey became synonymous with getting down to business.
Unlike turkey, crow is a notoriously unappetizing bird. At one time stories involving crow were a staple of American humor. For example: If lost in the woods, (1) Catch a crow. (2) Boil for a week with one of your boots. (3) Eat the boot. After the Civil War, those forced to admit an error were said to eat boiled crow. In 1885 an American magazine told its readers “To ‘eat crow’ means to recant, or to humiliate oneself.” It still does.
Such allusions are part and parcel of what I call retrotalk: conversational allusions to past phenomena. Even though American discourse is filled with historical references we assume “everyone’s heard of,” everyone hasn’t. Those who were born after what’s alluded to took place, who grew up in another country, or who simply don’t know what it refers to, get left out in the conversational cold. This suggests yet another reason for giving history greater prominence in our educational systems: Not just for its own inherent value but to facilitate conversation among young and old, historians and lay persons, the newly-arrived and those already here.
Most know that “The buck stops here” refers to the final point of responsibility. It’s common knowledge that this retrophrase comes from the old expression pass the buck. Far fewer realize that this phrase originated among frontier poker players who circulated a buck knife among themselves to indicate whose turn it was to deal and, presumably, to defend themselves if another player didn’t like the cards he was dealt. Timid souls who preferred not to deal at all passed the buck.
Barrels form the basis of an important subset of retrotalk. On nineteenth-century British ships, a wooden cask, or butt, held drinking water. Its lid had a dipping hole called a scuttle. The two pieces combined were called a scuttlebutt. As would later be true of office workers sipping water from water coolers, sailors commonly shared gossip beside these containers while quenching their thirst. In time scuttlebutt itself became synonymous with gossip, rumors, or inside information.
Other barrels aboard sailing ships held salted meat. Fat left over after that meat was cooked was called slush. Sometimes this rendered fat was sold to landlubbers on shore. The proceeds went into a slush fund to benefit crew members. Eventually that phrase came to characterize secret funds used for illicit purposes.
Barrels used to store pork used to be a common sight in American homes. The fuller the barrel, the richer its owner. Poor folks sometimes had to scrape the bottom of the barrel. That type of pig-based terminology is still heard routinely when politicians distribute money. Pork—or bringing home the bacon—signifies largesse. Pork barrel politics is based on accumulating and distributing public resources among backers and constituents.
Telling such stories provides a capital opportunity to relate history to everyday conversation. Word history can’t be divorced from social history. As Bill Bryson wrote in Made in America, “unless we understand the social context in which words are formed . . . we cannot begin to appreciate the richness and vitality of the words that make up our speech.” Rather than simply use retroterms and puzzle many listeners, exploring their origins give us a first-rate teaching moment.
Consider the case of stable owner Thomas Hobson.. A hearty coachman who lived well into his eighties, from 1568 until 1631 Hobson rented some forty horses to Cambridge University students. These young men had a tendency to return Hobson’s horses panting and covered with froth. As a result, his most popular steeds were getting worn out. To remedy this problem, Hobson came up with an ingenious solution. A returned horse went to the farthest stall of his stable, then moved up in turn. Customers could only rent the horse closest to the entryway (i.e., the freshest one). “This one or none” was his policy. Students sarcastically called that Hobson’s choice, meaning no choice at all. Thomas Ward’s 1688 poem “England’s Reformation,” included the line, “Where to elect there is but one, ’tis Hobson’s choice — take that or none.” When Henry Ford said Model T customers could have any color they liked, so long as it was black, he offered them a Hobson’s choice.