Ralph Keyes is known as a writer’s writer. He earned that distinction by writing well on a variety of topics over a long period of time, sometimes directly for writers, and other times on the origins of modern American expression. His list of over a dozen books includes such titles as The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting From Frustration to Publication (Owl Books, 2003), The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear (Henry Holt, 1995), The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When (St. Martin’s 2005), “Nice Guys Finish Seventh”: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (Harper Collins, 1992) and his latest, I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech, published this week by St. Martin’s Press.
The kind of writing Keyes does requires a great deal of research. Go down into the basement of his house, as I did a few years ago and you will find rows of four drawer filing cabinets stacked double high. It is from these files that he gets the ideas for his books. He gathers and stores newspaper and magazine articles and other bits of information, often his own jottings, as he comes upon them and stashes them away for possible later use. While searching his files for a work in progress, he may very well come upon the seed of an idea for his next book or article. These days, he may just be his own best resource.
And that brings me back to my original point: Keyes is more than a writer; he has fashioned himself into an expert on the origins of expressions used in everyday American speech and as a resource for us all. I Love It When You Talk Retro is a resource work, complete with notes, bibliography and an index, that can be breezed through with the ease of reading a personal essay or a work of fiction. What he has discovered is that the origins of our everyday speech can be a source of amusement, and he readily shares the amusing tidbits he has uncovered with his readers.
“After chasing down their origins I found myself repeatedly musing, ‘So that’s where that comes from!’ Keyes writes.
In I Love It When You Talk Retro Keyes posits that expressions that enrich our language such as “bigger than a breadbox,” “show me the money” and “cut and run,” while seeming to have achieved universal meaning over time, may not really be understood by those of generations that follow the one that spawned them, or by those for whom English is a second language. He calls these words and phrases retrotalk.
“To qualify as a retroterm,” he writes, “a word or phrase must be in current use yet have an origin that isn’t current.”
Catch phrase references like “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” “Where’s the beef?” and “cha-ching” of TV commercial fame already a generation old, are not likely to be understood by today’s teens. Neither are references to scratched or broken records likely to conjure up meaningful images to young people who download their music from computers directly to their I-pods. This is the kind of stuff that is fodder for Keyes who tirelessly back-tracks to the point of origin, because some of those we think we know, we do not. The term “wimp,” for instance comes from the Popeye comic strip; a “lame duck” was an eighteenth-century stock trader who didn’t pay his debts; to get “caught in a wringer” refers to a feature of an old fashioned washing machine.
“They are verbal fossils, ones that outlive the organism that made their impression in the first place,” Keyes writes. “This 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.”
“Close, but no cigar!” “not worth a tinker’s damn,” “kick over the traces,” you think you know them? You might want to look them up in I Love It When You Talk Retro. Or you might just want to go from cover to cover. It’s more than just an interesting read; it’s a journey into the past.
– Virgil Hervey