Saturday, May 9, 2009

Talk retro to me

This one is for the Young People, if any such lurk among my readers. Are you mystified by the peculiar turns of speech when Baby Boomers talk? Do you feel ashamed that at your unfamiliarity with the TV series of the late 1950s and early 1960s? Are you disinclined to watch hours of TV Land to catch up?

Help is available.

Ralph Keyes has published a book, I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech (St. Martin’s Press, 310 pages, $25.95), that will help you caulk the gaps in your cultural education.

I was particularly touched to find his entries on newspaper lingo, particularly piquant now in the twilight of print journalism.

Deadline, for example, the appointed time by which copy is due or an edition is to be completed, derives from the line in a prison that an inmate could not cross without being shot. (I would very much have liked to recover the original penalty in the newsroom, but I could never persuade my betters even to issue sidearms to the copy editors.)

The spindle on which stories written on copy paper were impaled when editors decided not to run them was called a spike, and to this day a story that is killed is said to have been spiked.

Theodore Roosevelt, alluding in 1906 to “The Man with the Muck Rake” in Pilgrim’s Progress, said that journalists exposing scandals were “raking the muck,” and muckraking has been a badge of honor in investigative journalism ever since.

Let Mr. Keyes help you. With a perusal of his book and a little practice, you could contrive to sound almost as antique as I do.


  1. Interesting book, but I can Google the old phrase for free.

  2. You can find Ralph Keyes' blog here:
    He has a retro word of the day feature.

    The RSS feed is here:

    23 skidoo!

  3. @Luke -- Yes, but what happens when the term is obscure enough that Google doesn't find it? Or you only get one result (or conflicting results) and now you need to verify it by checking it against something else? Life doesn't have to be an either/or thing -- you can make intelligent use of both electronic and hard copy sources.


  4. Just wanted you that you do have Young People among your readership. And that book does tempt me, but more for its rich etymological content than for actual comprehension of speech around me. As referenced above, it's much more difficult to track down the etymology of a given word or phrase than one might think.

  5. John: Somewhat coincidentally, the "Final Jeopardy" question two days after this post was as follows (category: word origins): "Before its use in journalism, it meant a boundary beyond which straying prisoners would be shot." One of the three contestants got it right; the other two thought it was "headline."

    I really like and appreciate your blog.

  6. As a Aero engineer during WWII at an aircraft plant, correspondence with
    the Canadian Car and Foundry Co., a supplier for the wings and other components of of our main aircraft, were peppered with "TARFU" when addressing real or imagined errors on the drawings that we supplied.
    This, of course, was to "really" emphazise the problem.
    Enjoyed the book; a mini-history lesson! Jack A. Heller

  7. During WWII correspondense with our Canadian supplier for aircraft parts
    peppered their letters with "TARFU" over real and imagined errors in the drawings we supplied. This was to make the point "really" important.