Talk RetroI Love It When You Talk Retro
by Ralph Keyes

“You sound like a broken record” makes perfect sense to my generation, which grew up with vinyl LP’s which skipped into hiccuping repeats if cracked or dented. To a younger generation, while they may know that it means “I heard you the first time”, they can’t fathom any reason why it should mean that. Isn’t a “broken record” a new achievement in sports — and what has that got to do with talking too much?

But then, my generation did our own share of wondering about things we heard our grandparents say, phrases like “laundry list”. Why would anyone bother to make a list of dirty clothes, before putting them into the washing machine? Wouldn’t that be a pointless exercise?

Just a few weeks ago, I read a “Pickles” comic strip in which the grandma observed the grandpa asleep in a comical position and remarked, “There’s a Kodak Moment” — to which the mystified grandson replied, “What’s a Kodak?” In another story, a young person was stumped by the question, “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”, only to shrug, “I don’t know; that depends — how big is a breadbox?”

I Love it When You Talk Retro is a book about these linguistic generation gaps.

A lot of the fun of this book is just browsing through the hundreds of references and nodding at the back-stories. Some are cases of “oh, sure, I remember that!” — while others are “Ah, so that’s where that came from!” The book is a lovely rummage through a linguistic attic where we stumble over familiar and unfamiliar discoveries. We’ve got Keystone Kops and Edsels, scuttlebutt and the water cooler, Horatio Alger and Joe Palooka, the 800-pound gorilla and the elephant in the living room, B-movies and pick-up-sticks, blue laws and dog-and-pony shows — a beautiful collection of colorful curiosities.

But, beyond the specific etymologies of particular phrases, the broader delight of this book is the idea running through it all, the idea that the language we use every day is thickly embedded with what the author refers to as “verbal fossils”.  These are terms in common use whose meaning originated in an event or custom now forgotten.  (“Who was Hobson and what was his choice? Why does zipless have sexual overtones? And what’s the big deal about drinking Kool-Aid?”) These fossils, or “retronyms”, are not the same thing as idioms. With idioms, the meanings can be figured out from the words themselves — (to dig one’s own grave, to skate on thin ice).  Fossil terms, on the other hand, have no intrinsic meaning, but a meaning that depends on knowing how they were originally used — (poster boys, tin-foil hats, brownie points).

This can’t be just a recent phenomenon, a product of the TV and computer age.  It must have been going on as long as people have been taking shorthand references to current events and turning them into wider metaphors.  Linguistic fossils of medieval farmers probably baffled Renaissance merchants, and fossils of phrases concocted by those Renaissance merchants surely mystified Victorian clerks.  A familiar phrase takes on a life that keeps it circulating through people’s mouths long after we’ve forgotten why on earth we say that.

When I’m reading a book written in some earlier age, whether it’s a 1930’s mystery, an 1880’s novel, or an 1850’s political essay, I’m always stumbling over odd references that are never explained in the text because the author assumes they are too familiar to require explanation.    What exactly are tenterhooks, and why are we on them?  What is the stalking horse stalking, and why is a horse normally not a hunting beast — stalking something at all? What’s so special about a Philadelphia lawyer, as opposed to, say, a Boston lawyer?

Yet somehow these little obscurities serve to transport me into another time and place more vividly than familiar modern English would do. It’s not only clothes and furniture which can set a scene and orient us to another time and place. Finding ourselves in a slightly different place in the layers of lanuguage history, the place where phrases we know as fossils were fresh and newly deposited, is enlightening.

Some day, a century from now, words like blog, spam, and re-boot will need some explaining when they crop up in our generation’s novels, and readers will be charmed by these fossils of another era.