The Word

Unusual suspects

When phrases give up the ghost

By Jan Freeman
May 3, 2009
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A FEW YEARS ago, in a journalism class a friend of mine was teaching, one of the older students said he didn't get another writer's passing reference to a current movie. In the ensuing discussion, my friend said they might want to stick to allusions that were widely familiar - "You know, like 'Round up the usual suspects.' "

Blank faces stared back at her. Not a mile from the Casablanca restaurant in Harvard Square, where a huge mural depicts characters from the movie, sat a roomful of students who had never heard that famous line of dialogue from "Casablanca."

So we won't always have Paris, after all. But is the limited shelf life of pop allusions a problem for journalism? Ralph Keyes, whose new book is "I Love It When You Talk Retro," suggests that it is. "Journalists who lace their copy with such retro terms or names risk alienating those who are too young to get the allusions," wrote Keyes in Editor & Publisher last month. "Even common catch phrases that hearken back to earlier times may be puzzling to younger readers: stuck in a groove, 98-pound weakling, drop a dime, bigger than a breadbox."

The bloggers' response was swift and anything but unanimous. Jennifer Larson (age 34), at her own website, said, essentially, What younger readers? "Wouldn't it make sense to assume that yeah, most of your readers actually will understand the so-called 'retro references?' I mean, it's not like hordes of high school students and college students are reading newspapers these days."

Besides, she said, "consider the likely alternative to using dated references. Ack! Is there anything worse than an older person laboring to use a cool new expression?"

Craig Lancaster of the Billings (Mont.) Gazette, who blogs at Watch Yer Language, took a longer view. "A friend of mine, age 39, signs off on Facebook every night with 'Goodnight, Gracie,' " he writes. "The program that made it famous, 'The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,' went off the air 12 years before he was born. These gems live on because they're passed down, from generation to generation . . . You didn't have to be alive during the original run of 'Gilligan's Island' or 'Leave it to Beaver' to get the references - those shows are playing, somewhere, every day."

Several commenters pointed out that old and young alike can easily find out the background of any unfamiliar reference. (And let me note that if you really have no idea how large a breadbox might be, photos and measurements abound at Web shopping sites.)

Are dated catch phrases really a communication problem? They may come off as the in-group language of a graying generation, as Keyes notes, but they're really no different from other items in our vocabulary. We all make adjustments when necessary - thongs are no longer sandals, twittering isn't just for the birds - but as long as our audience knows what we mean by dime store, there's no reason to change.

In any case, we can't just run a search-and-replace on our pasts, updating those "Casablanca" catch phrases with Bart Simpson's bon mots. And would it really be a better world if we'd never heard the word icebox?

These allusions and dated terms, like all our words, live or die according to our collective whim. If enough people say "Round up the usual suspects" enough times, it will survive, in some form, in the next generation's lexicon. If not, not: Twenty-three skidoo, see you later, alligator.

But how far should anyone go in adjusting his or her vocabulary to the audience - or "dumbing down," as some bloggers call it? After all, you'd have to aim very low to ensure you used only words and references known to every single reader. As more than one commenter pointed out, we learn new words by hearing them; same with new allusions.

Happily, it turns out that you don't have to answer these questions to enjoy "Talk Retro." Keyes's book is not really an argument about journalism; it's a handy collection of these (allegedly) retro words and phrases, whose sources you may not know even if you know the terms. Keyes says he himself was only recently enlightened about the implications of "there must be a pony in there." Browsing, I've learned whose bloody shirt is waved (it was worn by a clergyman flogged for preaching to slaves, and waved by an abolitionist), that the chip on someone's shoulder was often cow dung, and that "slice and dice" dates from the late-night Veg-o-Matic commercials.

Your mileage may vary, as the EPA has taught us to say, but readers on both sides of the generation gap will find something here they didn't know (or had long forgotten). If what we have here really is a failure to communicate, "Talk Retro" could be part of the remedy.