'Retro Talk': Cultural References Mystify Young When Ralph Keyes, author of I Love It When You Talk Retro, heard Neal Conan and a guest joking about a reference to Captain Kirk and whether anyone understood it anymore, he emailed TOTN. He knows what's behind all kinds of "retroterms," from cootie to scuttlebutt.

'Retro Talk': Cultural References Mystify Young

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Right now, it's Tuesday, and time to read from your emails and Web comments. We got an inside look at the lives of pilots a week ago - how the job has changed, what makes a great pilot. Ray Griffith flies for an airline. He emailed to report less pay and lower benefits - and lower safety standards.

I've seen a growing trend of airlines trying to get by on as little as possible. This philosophy has lowered the quality of life for pilots and other airline employees, and has driven much experience and talent from the profession. This cannot be good for the industry.

And many of you called in and wrote in with your stories about starting over. During our visit with "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson, we asked you to tell us about a time you had to press the reset button on your life.

Sherbin(ph) emailed to tell us: I've had to start over several times. In 1989, as a newly divorced mother in Memphis, I lost my job, was in danger of losing my apartment, and I was swimming in debt. An unusual opportunity then presented itself: I could move onto a small, remote farm in central Kentucky to mind the animals, milk the goats and raise a garden for its owner - a widower who I knew from two meetings who had recently lost his wife and needed to travel for his profession. Twenty years later, the owner and I are happily married. My daughter is planning a law career, and my life could not be more wonderful. Leaving oneself open to all options, whether inside or outside the box, can make these resets more like great blessings.

And during that earlier conversation on the lives of pilots, we talked with John Nance - a former pilot, now an aviation analyst for ABC News. And I asked him what's changed since the golden age of aviation. One of things he pointed to…

Mr. JOHN NANCE (Aviation Analyst, ABC News): We fired Captain Kirk. We fired that individual. We took the left seat, basically, and said: Captain, if you want to fly for this airline, you are going to create an atmosphere in which your first officer can and will always speak up to you.

CONAN: So Spock is flying a lot more planes than Kirk these days.

Mr. NANCE: I know there's a generation out there that doesn't even know what I'm talking about.

CONAN: Well, yes. That back-and-forth caught the ear of Ralph Keyes, a writer. He emailed to tell us that he wrote a whole book about the words and allusions we assume everybody knows, but leave younger people mystified, what he calls retro talk. So, 'fess up, geezers. What reference do you use that leave the younger generation clueless? And youngsters, what references have you heard from us gray beards that have left you scratching your hair? Bread box? Scuttlebutt? Mrs. Robinson? Get on the horn: 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email: talk@npr.org.

Ralph Keyes's book is titled: "I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech." And it's nice to have you on the program again.

Mr. RALPH KEYES (Author): It's great to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And this started, in some ways, with a question from your son about someone named Chernobyl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. My son was born a few years after the greatest nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. And one day, when he was middle school, he comes up to his mother and he says: Who is this Chernobyl I keep hearing about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: His older brother, once I said to him something about, well, that guy really got ropa-doped. And he looks at me, like, huh? What? What are you talking about?

CONAN: Yeah. And your book performs the public services, explaining a lot of these expressions. But nevertheless, there is a - when there are, sort of, universal pop culture references that infuse a society from, well, 50, 40, 30 years ago, the people who were born after all those references have vanished - their originals origins vanished - they're never going to get it.

Mr. KEYES: No. That's retro talk. And, you know, we folks from yours and my generation use them routinely, assuming, well, everybody knows what we're talking about. Just, for example, right now we're talking a lot about the need to reform health care. And in those conversations, we often make reference to Harry and Louise.

CONAN: Which everybody remembers were stars of a commercial that helped bring down the health-care reform back in the '90s.

Mr. KEYES: Exactly. But what about my son Scott, who was 7 years old at the time that Harry and Louise were making their ads? I'm not sure that he knows what we're referring to. And then when Senator Sheldon Whitehouse went further and said we've gone from a Harry and Louise moment into a Thelma and Louise moment.

Well, again, it's like, huh? Well, he was referring to the 1991 movie, of course, where "Thelma and Louise," the buddy movie, held hands and went over the cliff. And "Thelma and Louise" has become an amazingly durable retro term, when we want to talk about going off a cliff.

CONAN: Don't tell me it's retro. Here's Twitter user Finn Castle(ph) tweeted us, bargain basement drew a blank stare from my 13-year-old when I used the term to describe very cheap LASIK surgery that we had heard advertised. Bargain basement, well, I guess that's a term people don't use anymore. Filene's Basement still exists, but otherwise...

Mr. KEYES: But what about - or what about dime store? You know, Barack Obama in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," referred to his father sometimes writing him letters with dime-store advice. Well, again, I know what he's talking about. I grew up in the Woolworth's and McCrory's era. But my kids don't know.

CONAN: You have to wonder whether Twitter or tweet is going to be a retro word maybe six months from now.

Mr. KEYES: Well, that's a really interesting point. In your news, when you were talking earlier, you referred to, hit the reset button, which, of course, we're all talking a lot about these days. But I wonder, 30 years from now, will computers still have reset buttons? And if they don't, will kids growing up then know what the heck their granddads were talking about when they talked about hit the reset button?

CONAN: Here's another email, this one from Liane(ph). I was hosting a life drawing group one night and when I was bidding good evening to my young comrades, I blurted out, see you next week, same bat time, same bat station. And they looked at me like I was crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: Sure. Well, at least it was TV. You know, some of us go back into the radio era. And, you know, one of the most interesting things for me in writing "I Love It When You Talk Retro" was finding out the origins of a lot of catchphrases that we use. For example, gangbusters, you know, going like gangbusters.

CONAN: Coming on like gangbusters.

Mr. KEYES: Coming on like gangbusters. Well, it turns out that comes from a 1930s very popular radio show called "Gangbusters." And this would open with a lot of screeching of cars, and breaking of glass, and shots being fired from Tommy Guns and sirens, and it got everybody's attention. And the show died after a few years. But the term gangbusters has been with us ever since.

CONAN: You also, another radio origin, you talked about the secret decoder ring.

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. And, you know, it's interesting. I assume, like most people that, well, yeah, there were secret decoder rings on every other kids' finger during the 1950s. But when I looked into it and talked to my brother, who was older than me and who had once ordered a Captain Midnight secret decoder badge, there actually were no secret decoder rings.

CONAN: I think you're wrong. I think Little Orphan Annie had a secret decoder ring.

Mr. KEYES: I looked into it. And the people who collect these things, who I take to be the ultimate experts…

CONAN: Well, maybe I'm wrong then. Maybe I'm wrong. I just remember reading about it, but maybe I'm wrong about that. Let's get some callers on the line. Again, we're talking about retro terminology. If you're a youngster, what has somebody said that you just went, huh? Or if you're a geezer, what have you said that fostered incomprehension among your listeners. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Dan is with us from Marinette, Wisconsin.

DAN (Caller): Yeah, the aphorism that I have used that's very retro in some of my history courses that I teach is only Nixon could go to China. And that draws lots of blank stares. And of course opens me up to a discussion of, you know, foreign policy in the early 1970s. But that's…

CONAN: Try Tory reformer, that ought to get it over.

DAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. Nixon goes to China is one of the retro terms that I explore in the book. How in the early '70s Nixon went to China when he wasn't, you know, when he was regarded as a rabid anti-communist, particularly tough on red China and ended up shaking Mao's hand and toasting him with rice wine. So, ever since then, the phrase, Nixon goes to China, has eluded to the thought that somebody who opposed a policy was in the best position to change it. And I'm delighted your caller is able to use that as a teachable moment, teachable phrase.

CONAN: It was also the subject of an opera, which at the time it came out seemed very contemporary and I guess now seems about as dated as Die Fledermaus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Dan.

DAN: You bet.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email, this from Tom in Rochester, New York. Here is one for you, nincompoop. There seemed to be a lot of nincompoops in the world, so it's a handy one. The dictionary says the word is 400 years old. Its origins are unknown. That suits me fine. My two daughters, now grown, look at me funny when I used it. My wife cringes -all the more reason to use it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's a true curmudgeonly response. Let's see if we can go to Laurie. Laurie with us from Charleston, South Carolina. Laurie, you there?

LAURIE (Caller): Hi, I am.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

LAURIE: Well, recently our hospital is kind of going through a change system, and they were trying to make everybody learn how to do this big change. And so one morning in a staff meeting I brought in big pitcher of Kool-Aid and set it on the table and said, just be careful, don't drink the Kool-Aid. And there were only about four of us in the room that actually got it.

Anybody that was under 30 in the room just sort of looked at us like we were all crazy. And I realized that my 30-year-old son didn't know what it was either. So that's another one that people don't know what don't drink the Kool-Aid means.

CONAN: Obviously, the reference to the terrible situation in Jonestown all those years ago.

LAURIE: Yeah. Right.

CONAN: But the terminology, it really did catch on for quite a long time, Ralph Keyes.

Mr. KEYES: Oh, it sure did, and we still use it. You know, drink the Kool-Aid refers, of course, to being an unthinking follower of somebody because Reverend Jim Jones' followers were willing to commit suicide when he ordered them to. But the interesting thing is, and this is one of many things I found out and didn't realize before I started researching this book on retro terms was, that it wasn't Kool-Aid that they drank. It was cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, which was a knock-off of Kool-Aid. So it's a little unfair to Kool-Aid when we say, don't drink the Kool-Aid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Their lawyers are on the line.

LAURIE: So we should really say, don't drink the Flavor Aid.

Mr. KEYES: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Laurie, thanks very much for the call.

LAURIE: Thank you.

CONAN: This from Sam in Tallahassee. I'm one of those younger people you talked about, I'm 27. I hated when older people assumed we youngins don't get references made, regarding older pop culture. Yes, I remember records. Yes, I know what a dime store is. Just because we're younger doesn't mean we all aren't aware of what existed before we were born and it's somewhat insulting to assume that we are clueless. Well, I think -how do you respond to that, Ralph?

Mr. KEYES: Well, I'm glad that you have a listener who's that well-informed and good for him. And, you know, upbraid me. I wish that, you know, all people of his cohort were that well-informed. And I don't think it's necessarily a matter that, well, gee, I know - you know, I was amazed at how many of the retro terms I looked into were ones, either I wasn't familiar with it all or I didn't realize where they came from. Just to take a single example, scuttlebutt.

Where did that come from? Well, that - it turns out to be - was the name of a keg of water on American and English sailing ships. And sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt and drink water and discuss the affairs of the day. They'd gossip, they'd, you know, share rumors, talk about the upper-ups. And they left that phrase behind as a synonym for inside information.

CONAN: Gossip.

Mr. KEYES: Scuttlebutt. Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. We're talking with Ralph Keyes. He's the author of "I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I should've added this email we got from Gary - don't touch that dial. What's a dial, he says.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KEYES: Perfect, same time, same place, tune in next week.

CONAN: Yeah, exactly.

Mr. KEYES: Same time, same station. Yes.

CONAN: Same station, exactly. I'm 24 years old, writes Molly, and when I was much younger, my dad often used the phrase, Bob's your uncle and easy as apple pie. I remember him having to explain what they mean, but now that I've been hearing them for years from him, they have become part of my vocabulary, as well. I often get strange looks from my friends who clearly don't know what I'm talking about. Of course, those are - Bob's your uncle is an English-ism.

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. I was going to say, there must be some British heritage there.

CONAN: That means, Bob's your uncle, easiest, easy peasy, one, two, three - that's another terminology.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's if we can - see if we can get Devon(ph) on the line. Devon calling from Berkeley.

DEVON (Caller): Hi, Neal and Ralph, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DEVON: I'm a high school teacher. I'm currently a stay home father this year, but most of my career has been spent teaching young girls in high school. And I indeed put my foot in my mouth some time ago when I was asked to go over the handbook, which comprised of 30 pages, but I had to go through it in four minutes. So I randomly went through different topics and decided to just kind of ad lib and that's where I got in trouble. I told the young ladies that if there was ever a fire, for that reason you should never wear high heels or thongs to school.

Mr. KEYES: Uh-oh.

DEVON: And that's when the class went completely silent, and I was completely red.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEVON: And I realized what had happened there, and I quickly covered that up with flip flops, I guess that's the language one should use.

CONAN: Flip flops has not changed its meaning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEVON: It hasn't. And other words that seemed to be no longer understood by the younger crowd, trunks for bathing suits. I would ask my students to hook up with their neighbor to exchange notes and that, of course, has taken on a different meaning.

CONAN: Whole different meaning, yes.

DEVON: Yeah. And corner market, mom-and-pop store, like you said earlier, they don't know what that is.

CONAN: I'm not sure they have any mom-and-pop corner stores there anymore in Berkeley. How about…

DEVON: Well, (unintelligible) but teaching in the suburbs, you don't have corner markets, you know, so, anyway.

Mr. KEYES: One of the people I wrote about in "I Love It When You Talk Retro" was a teacher like your caller. And she told - she took her class to an old school. This is elementary kids, and she said we're going to, you know, play marbles, and we're going to write on a blackboard, on slates, and we're going to go out and weed the garden, and we're going to use a hoe. And all of a sudden, the kids started tittering. And she said, what's wrong? And one kid put his hand over his mouth and then took it off and said, isn't hoe a bad word?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Now, here's an email from Wendy in Boise. Last week I took my five-year-old granddaughter to have her nails done. After she was finished I told her her nails looked snazzy. She looked to me and said, nana, what does snazzy mean?

Mr. KEYES: Great slang from years ago.

CONAN: Alice in Hawaii writes, I use the word, ducky, People think I am so incredibly clever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But little do they know, aloha from Alice. And Joel in Menomonie, Wisconsin, whenever I use the expression, I don't know so and so from Adam, people ask me, who's Adam? Other head-turners, many moons ago and jig time.

Mr. KEYES: Huh, that's a new one. I assume jig time refers to jail time?

CONAN: No. I think jig time, to do it in jig time means quickly, like an Irish jib.

Mr. KEYES: Oh, yeah. Well, that's a new one. Thank you.

CONAN: This from Shoshana(ph) in Berkeley. I'm not even that old, 30, but I often get strange looks from people even a few years younger than me, when I refer to audio books as books on tape. Whenever something like this happens I get a little sense of what my parents must feel like pretty much all the time. And indeed, in radio, well, all of our recordings, just about all of them, are made on computer these days, but we still call - we still call it tape.

Mr. KEYES: Yeah. And we talk about taping, I'll tape you.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. And, again, the record album, we think of that as an LP. In fact, the record album goes back to the days of 78 when you had an album of 78s to put a collection of a symphony or a whole group of songs by one artist out there. So…

Mr. KEYES: Right. And then we talk about the flip side, because records used to have two sides. You know, the A-side and the B-side or the flip side.

CONAN: Here's one. This from Patrick in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Groovy. If I can find a better word to put, I'm either okay with that or I plain really don't care. So, yeah, sure, do that in two syllables or less, I will. Well, groovy, I'm not sure I'm hip with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Ralph Keyes, thank you so much for your time today, we appreciate it.

Mr. KEYES: Thank you, Neal. I've enjoyed it.

CONAN: And Ralph Keyes had joined us today from member station WCBE in Columbus, Ohio. His new book is titled "I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech." Tomorrow, the story of Myron Uhlberg. He was born to two deaf parents in the Depression and grew up translating the hearing world for them. Plus, the founders of Twitter. Take your calls and your tweets.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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