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I Love It When You Talk Retro

Waves of technological advance can leave English expressions washed up on the shore, flotsam with no obvious origin for those too young to know what generated them. We still dial telephone numbers and hang up the phone even though the verbs refer to types of phones that have been out of use for decades. We may refer to the flip side of a situation or describe a person as talking like a broken record or of being stuck in a groove, even though gramophone records are rarely seen these days.

Similarly, common phrases often have their origins in popular cultural references that are opaque for those who weren’t around to experience the originals: double whammy, show me the money, I’ll have what she’s having, the $64,000 dollar question, the seven year itch, Stepford wife, will it play in Peoria?, the Twinkie defense, where’s the beef?

The cover of Ralph Keyes' book

Ralph Keyes calls such verbal fossils retroterms. This book has hundreds of them, at the risk of taking readers to the brink of indigestion. They’re arranged in chapters by themes such as sport, politicians, films and comics and the workplace, ending with a look at phrases of today that might turn up in a future edition of the book. Most are from the US, but some older ones are part of the common currency of all English speakers.

Mr Keyes is good on his American popular culture, but stumbles when etymology is involved. Though skeleton in the closet was indeed introduced by Thackeray (and closet was what he wrote, though the British form today is skeleton in the cupboard), it is extremely unlikely that it came about through the practice of doctors keeping the skeletons of bodies they had dissected locked in a closet out of public view. Why would they want to keep them? It’s surely a folk etymology. It is also improbable that reading between the lines, to look for hidden meaning, derives from the use of invisible inks to send a secret message hidden in an innocuous one. Folk etymology again.

Old fogey for a person with antiquated views is not from a US military term, fogey pay, for long-service pay. Fogey pay is known, of course, but dates from the latter part of the nineteenth century; old fogey is 100 years older — it’s in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue of 1785, where it is said to mean an invalid soldier; our standard English sense and the military one both derive from it. Did third degree for harsh questioning by police really derive from a supposedly harrowing induction rite for the highest grade in freemasonry? It has been known since Shakespeare’s time as a grade or level and was used for the classification of burns before it turns up in the interrogation sense. As the US legal term for the least serious grade of a particular crime is also earlier, it’s more likely to be the origin. Yellow journalism and yellow press didn’t derive from sponsorship by William Randolph Hearst of a bicycle race across America in 1896 (participants wore yellow jerseys) but from Joseph Pulitzer’s experiment in colour printing in the New York World in 1895 in which a child in a yellow dress (The Yellow Kid) was a figure in a cartoon.

Many other examples could be cited, which demonstrate the pitfalls faced by an expert in another field who attempts etymology without sound preparation or being primed to question the origins given in his sources. Such errors spoiled the book for me. Readers prepared to take his etymological assertions with a large pinch of salt may still find this a pleasant trip down nostalgia alley.

[Ralph Keyes, I Love It When You Talk Retro; St Martin’s Press; 1 Apr. 2009; hardback, 310pp. including index; ISBN 9780312340056; list price US$25.95.]

Page created 23 May 2009

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