March 12, 2010
When I first saw this book advertised in the Philadelphia Inquirer, I knew it was something I needed to add to my collection. I work with many ‘senior’ individuals, and they often throw out phrases that I have no clue what they mean. Have you ever been there? Someone will say something, you have no clue what it means, but you would feel stupid if you asked for clarity, so you just act as if you know what’s going on. This book is awesome! It is completely devoted to origins of retroterms, verbal artifacts that hang around in our national conversation long after the topic they refer to has galloped into the sunset. The author states, “To qualify as a retroterm, a word or phrase must be in current use yet have an origin that isn’t current.” The book consists of 22 chapters of true bliss, ranging from Story Lines, Movie Metaphors and The Future of Retrotalk. I have learned so much from this book and I cannot wait to flaunt my newfound knowledge. The first retroterm that caught my eye was white elephant. I am sure many of my readers have been to holiday parties that have had white elephant exchanges. I have always taken part in them and found them to be very entertaining; however, I never thought about where the term came from. Why a white elephant? Well, according to page 12 of I Love It When You Talk Retro, “By legend, when a king in ancient Siam (not Thailand) wanted to make life difficult for someone, he gave that person an albino elephant. Because Buddha’s spirit was thought to inhabit these rare pachyderms, the recipient could not make it a beast of burden. Nor could he sell this elephant. Instead, its new owner had to feed and house this huge white pet until he went broke. From this heritage grows our modern notion of the white elephant: any possession that’s hard to dispose of, but too valued to dispense with.” Interesting fact I must say so myself. At my last white elephant exchange, I got a bag full of “Our 1st Christmas” ornaments from years back. I guess I would much rather this than a literal elephant. In short, I really enjoyed this book. Ralph Keyes has done a great job answering the question, “Where did that phrase come from?” In addition, key words and phrases are highlighted, making this an easy read. I would highly recommend this book without reservation.