Sunday, March 22, 2009


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."

Nowdays, 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 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.


Travelin'Oma said...

My daughter in law was devastated when we finally convinced her to watch the Dirty Harry Movies. She said they were full of cliches. We tried to explain that they weren't cliches yet. Isn't it fun to know the beginnings of a phrase that keeps on giving years after the original meaning is lost.

One of the sayings I still say is "Tablebacks" meaning that my place is saved in line or on the couch. I learned this playing Tetherball on the William Penn playground, and although I don't know it's origins, I'm passing it on as street talk of the 1950's.

Thanks for the congratulations. Pete and Anna are giving us our twentieth grandchild! It is absolutely unbelievable to us. Pete (he's my 6th kid) was born the day before my 30th birthday, and his baby is due that same week on one of our birthdays, or their 3rd anniversary, or our 40th.

Aren't you in the September club, too? Just the classiest folks can be in our club. It's the coolest birthday month, I think.

PI said...

Very interesting and there are still differences ie words and expressions I'm not familiar with being British. I find the origins fascinating.
For instance we used to call the chamber pot under the bed the po and I like to think it started in WW1 when our soldiers were in France and a pot was pronounced Po.
I could be wrong:)

Sheri said...

I don't for the life of me remember "Tablebacks" when I played tetherball at William Penn!

I think you are probably right about Po. I could write a whole book about the British expressions we don't use in America--I love them--I especially love "Gobsmacked" used when you're surprised!

Keri(th) said...

Oh, I must buy this book. I actually knew a great number of the phrase origins that you referred to in this post (shocking, I know). Perhaps it's because some of my favorite movies and moments of history are from the 1920's-1960's.

KM said...


Chris and I had a conversation the other night that centered around streettalk nowdays, and the development of such common idioms like, "What's Up!", "that's the bomb", and etc... it makes me wonder what my kids will be saying someday!

Kathleen said...

Far out!