Talk retro to me, baby


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Do you know any of these phrases — “think of England,” “a gun in your pocket,” “go nuclear,” “rough and tumble, knock-down, drag-out” or “at the drop of a hat”?

Do you know what it means to “go to the mattresses”?

It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t.

What’s that? You think you know some of these sayings?

You think “go to the mattresses” means shooting a gun? Well, you’re close, but no cigar.

There’s no doubt that great American clichés are, well, clichés. Whether we speak with street slang or have a broad, beautiful vocabulary, we all use little bits of language in our everyday manner of speech that come from another time and place.


However you like to talk, it’s both funny and fun to discover where classic American phrases came from. Ralph Keyes sought to explain hundreds of these sayings, giving the history behind them, how they developed and how they are used today.

I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech,’ which hits shelves next week, is for the linguists, the literary and the lovers of trivia.

Here’s Keyes, in his own words, discussing with Jacket Copy his new book with the retro comic book-like cover:

JC: Have you always loved language, particularly catchphrases and clichés? Why did you write this book?

Keyes: I’ve always been alert to catchphrases and slang. I’m writing a new book now on euphemisms called ‘Euphemania.’ When we use these phrases, we assume everyone knows what we are talking about, except when they don’t. An incident I like ... years ago, our younger son came up to his mother and asked: ‘Who’s this ‘Cher Noble’ I keep hearing about?’

JC: What’s your favorite saying or phrase? Are there any that you use often?


Keyes: I love ‘98-pound weakling.’ I love ‘ka-ching.’ I love ‘secret decoder rings.’ It is just fascinating to me how old ads, old comic books and old movies leave behind a whole language. I love ‘cooties.’

JC: Is there a saying that really bothers you?

Keyes: I used to love the word ‘kerfuffle,’ but it’s so overused now. And ‘man bites dog’ — not everyone knows what that means.

What bothers me is when we use retro terms too much, assuming everyone knows what we’re talking about when, really, we are confusing people.

JC: In exploring the origins of these phrases, were there any that really surprised you?

(Keyes’ answer after the jump)

Keyes: There were. ‘Scuttlebutt’ — I had no idea it referred to a keg of water on a ship where sailors would gather to share gossip. ‘Scuttlebutt’ really surprised me.

I was surprised to find out that there were no ‘secret decoder rings.’ There were secret decoder pins, but no rings.

‘Ka-ching’ came from a Rally’s Hamburger ad in 1982.

JC: How long did it take you to do the research for this book?

Keyes: It just about did me in. I started out in earnest about four or five years ago. I figured it would only take me a few months.

JC: Why do people love to hang on to and continue to use particular phrases?

Keyes: You know, I think there are a lot of reasons. I think one of the key reasons is that it is a form of generational pride and a form of generational arrogance. I’ve crowned Chris Matthews the king of retro talk. I’ve crowned Maureen Dowd the queen of retro talk. They use older terms, and when you do this, you’re saying to a younger audience: ‘This doesn’t include you. I’m not talking to you.’ I think they’re just winking at each other and winking at other people of their generation.

JC: I noticed that many catchphrases come from ‘The Godfather’ and from boxing. Why is that? Why not tennis?

Keyes: That’s a really good question. Boxing has a long history of good sports writing, and they would put the words in their writing. Football doesn’t have the same literary tradition as boxing.

‘The Godfather’: I think that’s just a tribute to Mario Puzo’s great writing. The horsehead, go to the mattresses, make your bones. These are great phrases.

JC: ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ ‘On the Waterfront’. . . Americans love to talk movies. Do you think people relate in words in this way because they have already been given such a strong visual?

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. It is striking how movies will leave retro terms behind. Things that register with us emotionally are going to stay behind with us.

JC: And what are your predictions — what words will be retro terms in the future?

Keyes: I like ‘Truman Show.’ This whole notion that we’re on TV and we don’t know it. I think ‘Tracy Flick.’ The woman who took Hillary’s place in the Senate. People, in discussing her, refer to her as a ‘Tracy Flick.’

Future retroterms might include the most lasting phrase from the 2008 campaign, ‘going rogue.’ The buzz words of the hour are ‘reboot,’ ‘reset’ and ‘hit the reset button.’

— Lori Kozlowski

Cover photo credit: St. Martin’s Press