Many expressions we use as adults originated in the playgrounds, classrooms, and empty lots of our childhood. “Say uncle,” “connect the dots,” “stay within the lines,” and “stuck-up” are just a few.
The term hoodwink is left over from another children’s game, blindman’s buff (not “bluff”). In this traditional English game, the it person was blindfolded, slapped on the behind, or “buffed,” then made to stumble about trying to grab other players. Blindfolded participants were said to be hoodwinked. Originally, that term referred to having one’s eyes covered. Over time hoodwink came to mean “trick someone.”
Nowadays, students with digital wristwatches do not understand clockwise, counterclockwise and ‘a quarter to three’. Two forty-five they understand.
“Retroterms” from cootie to scuttlebutt are seldom understood but were often used by the older generation. When we use these terms, it’s with the assumption that everyone understands. However, that’s not always true.
Cootie, for example, is a word for lice that originated as soldier slang in World War I. Ralph Keyes is the author of the book I Love It When You Talk Retro. It takes a look at the stories behind the allusions that have — so far — stood the test of time.
The book takes an entertaining and informative look at the fashion and fads of our language. Today’s 18-year-olds may not know who Mrs. Robinson is, where the term “stuck in a groove” comes from, why 1984 was a year unlike any other.
“Big as a bread box” or what the term Watergate refers to are other examples. The book discusses these verbal fossils that remain embedded in our national conversation long after the topic they refer to has galloped off into the sunset.
It could be a person (Mrs. Robinson), product (Edsel), past bestseller (Catch-22), radio or TV show (The Shadow), comic strip (Pogo), or advertisement (Where’s the beef?) which are long forgotten.
The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” is a mystery to young people today, as is “45rpm.” Even older folks don’t know the origins of “raked over the coals” (originally in reference to the treatment of heretics) and “cut to the chase” (originated in the US film industry). Keyes uses his skill as a sleuth of sources to track what he calls “retrotalk”: “a slippery slope of puzzling allusions to past phenomena.”
He surveys the origins of “verbal fossils” from commercials (Kodak moment), jurisprudence (Twinkie defense), movies (pod people), cartoons (Caspar Milquetoast) and literature (Brave New World).
Many allusions or idioms come from an old game involving small round spheres made of clay, glass, ceramic, or stone. These, of course, are marbles. Marbles could be used in an infinite variety of games, but — in America, anyway — the most popular involved trying to knock each other’s marbles out of a circle drawn in the dirt.
Those playing this game, usually called Ringer, had to knuckle down, or squat on one knee with a knuckle on the ground, then propel a shooter into the ring from his hand. As adults, we say we’re ready to knuckle down, or get serious, as we once did when marbles were on the line. To knuckle under, on the other hand, is to succumb, much like the marble player yielding to an opponent’s demand that he shoot with knuckles inverted.
Players in some games played for keeps, or “keepsies.” Winners of those games kept every marble they could knock out of the ring. Another way of saying the same thing was going for all the marbles. In Ringer, as in life, this meant aspiring to all or nothing. Losing your marbles was infuriating of course, and is probably why we apply that phrase to out-of-control adults who have lost it.
It is great fun exploring the origins of our expressions