Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why Do We Say That?

There's an interesting piece in the latest issue of the AARP Bulletin (sigh, yes, I've been an AARP member for a good few years now). It's called "Say What?", and it takes 50 common expressions we all recognize and use and briefly looks at their derivations ... which are, often as not, rooted in customs and technologies that most people younger than I don't even recognize any more.

I've long been interested in how customs, and perceptions change over time, and how our general attitudes are rooted in our age groups. In my May 5th post (You're Not Old Unless...), I looked at some of the things I remember that my grandchildren will probably shake their heads over in disbelief when I reminisce with them.

Which brings me back to the AARP Bulletin article. The source of the information on derivation of the 50 expressions is a great website called The Phrase Finder which is good for hours of linguistic fun (okay, a few minutes of linguistic fun, if you're not a language aficionado). Here are a few examples of interesting phrases born of things most people don't understand or mental connections they don't make any more:

1. "Asleep at the switch." Back in the dark ages, railroads employed switchmen to manually shift tracks so that trains would be shunted to the correct line. A person "asleep at the switch," not paying attention to his job, could cause a serious accident. Now, of course, computers do all the switching. We still have serious accidents, we just don't have a single person to blame them on any more.

2. "Hung out to dry." Not many people actually hang their laundry out on a clothesline to air-dry any more...not since we have ultramodern clothes dryers.

3. "Sounds like a broken record." Someone who never owned a phonograph probably can't relate to the endless repetition of sections of a song caused by a crack or other defect in the surface of a record. What's a record, you ask? Hmmm....

4. "Left his calling card." At one time, people carried calling cards, which they left as a reminder that they had visited and thus fulfilled a social obligation. Nowadays, of course, we just e-mail or leave a note on Facebook...

5. "That and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee." In this world of Starbucks half-caff non-fat espresso carbonara venti latte with foam and linguine, who would believe you could just get a simple cup of coffee? And for 25 cents, no less?

6. "My dance card is full." I've been dancing for almost 30 years and have yet to see a lady with a dance card on which she scheduled her fox trots with different gentlemen. Well, there's Mary Lou, who always wants to see a ticket, but that's a whole 'nother story...

7. "That's all, folks!" Who anymore remembers Porky Pig's traditional signoff at the end of the Looney Tunes? Or knows that it's the inscription on Mel Blanc's grave?

8. "Over the top." It means "outrageously goofy or dangerous"... but who now remembers that it once referred to soldiers in World War I climbing up over the lips of their trenches and running into the enemy's deadly fire?

9. "Drink the Kool-Aid." We know that it refers to extreme compliance with a stupid idea, but how many people still associate it with the horror of the mass suicide at Jonestown?

And finally,

10. "Back to the drawing board." I once had a drawing board...and a lot of pens and rulers and shape templates and such...but who nowadays understands the concept of going back to the drawing board when all you ever use is computer-assisted design software?

Take a few minutes and visit the Phrase Finder website for a stroll down linguistic memory lane. Assuming, of course, that your memory is still all it should be, ha, ha.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



KKTSews said...

I had a dance card! When I learned to ballroom dance (basics only) in middle school, we were given dance cards at each of the four formal dances. I saved them for years, and then tossed them in one of my frenzies of cleaning out that which I really don't need. Not enough sentimental value. Maybe it was because there were some blanks in there!

allenwoodhaven said...

Good post! I often find young people looking at me oddly for the "common" expressions I use. It's hard to understand until I realize that they weren't even born when I learned sayings like those you posted. My latest example: "And away we go!" (Jackie Gleason for those who don't know.....)

Bandit said...

It was either you are Mike that had a post with a list of things that if you remembered a certain % of them, you were older than dirt.

Bilbo said...

Katherine - had I but known! Someday, we'll see how much you remember!

Allen - I remember that phrase very well, AND the proper swinging arm and hip motions that went with it!

Bandit - guilty. But Mike's older.

Mike said...

Yes Mike is older but the percentage difference keeps getting smaller and smaller as time marches on.

And curses. I was just reading the last page of AARP last night thinking "This would be a good post". Apparently I was right.

Wv: spamalm - a ding dong.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I didn't know #9. Besides from that, I knew all the others. I must be ancient.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

9 was the only one I didn't know..Oh and I hang my clothes out to dry all the time. We don't have a drier. Plus they smell nicer in the summer when they dry in the sun :P

Leslie David said...

The Strauss Ball at Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom featured dance cards. First time for me but a lot of fun, getting guys to sign up for dances with me--more fun than an add-a-bead necklace.