Claimed Creator of <i> Yuppie</i> Comes to Terms With <i> Gal</i>
Alice Kahn claims she invented the term yuppie in the spring of 1983.
Now, she purports to give us gal .
“I think there’s this image that the word gal conjures up which I love,” said the 43-year-old San Francisco columnist. “It’s an old word, and it’s an old image from the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
Her definition of a gal is “that time when one puts aside reason in the service of beauty. I’ve been afflicted with galhood for about 20 years. I’m hoping that the younger generation will have different ideas.”
Kahn, who writes a twice-weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle, is one of those social observers who genuinely believes that what happens to her must be happening to everyone. As a result, she is convinced that a wide audience will read and identify with subjects like galhood contained in her just-published book, “My Life as a Gal: Memoirs, Essays and Outright Silliness” (Delacorte Press; $15.95).
Kahn’s humor arises out of the unabashed provinciality of her immediate world. She revels in the small-town atmosphere of her home in Berkeley. She is still married to her high school sweetheart. She only recently left her “real” job as a nurse practitioner to pursue writing full time.
It’s no wonder that Kahn is constantly finding so much meaty material in her own life and that of others to satirize.
“I’m a writer who’s sometimes funny, but that’s not my goal,” she said. “I would say my goal is to point at things and go ‘Isn’t this incredible? Isn’t this unbelievable? And this is true!’ I was always an ill-mannered child because I always pointed. And I still do. What I want people to look at is reality. And if writing about it from the point of view of satire is the best way to illuminate it, great.”
So what does she satirize?
‘My First Husband’
She is “humiliated” that she has not gotten a divorce from her husband like everyone else. “I sometimes describe him as my first husband,” she explained. “Or else people look at you like you have no sex drive.”
She also is “thoroughly bored” with being a slave to food. Never mind that she chose to be interviewed in the trendier-than-thou Berkeley mecca for foodies, Chez Panisse. “How do you know how ridiculous it is to live a life for the next tasty item unless you’re out there grazing with the rest of them?” she asked rhetorically.
It is classic Kahn that she warns over a scrawny lunch that “everything will be amazingly tiny. We will need a tweezers to eat this.” Or admits that “I love to come here for vocabulary lessons. This is a stump-the-stars menu. You see words like prune d’artois .”
Kahn’s brand of humor may not be to everyone’s liking because of its built-in assumption that we all share her baby-boomer values. As she puts it, she writes for “those people between 25 and 45 who all know the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen songs. There’s an immediate rapport you can count on.”
But, strangely enough, other people ranging from cops to 13-year-olds are beginning to become converts too. “It’s like hands across the water,” Kahn said. “Through all this garbage that we think separate us by education and class and snobbery, the idea that there is some language that I found to reach somebody whom I consider very different from me is just heaven.”
Sometimes, it seems that she is getting herself worked up over the mere minutiae of life--like the fact that the state of Oregon until recently had an archaic law on its books that banned bakeries from producing baguettes. She wrote an entire column about the effort to legalize people who smuggled baguettes across Oregon’s borders. Other times, she tackles traffic school and the publishing industry.
But she is at her best when she looks up from her own life and focuses on the world at large. One reason she rushed into print with the definition of galhood is that she missed cashing in on yuppiedom--and it still annoys her.
“In the spring of 1983, I sat down and wrote this mock sociological study because I saw that what had been a sleepy small college town area was becoming chic. No nouns went unmodified. Everything had to have a certain cachet,” she recalled.
“People weren’t just buying bread anymore. They bought designer bread. Everything had a label and a name. There was plenty to laugh at.”
She invented a couple, Dirk Miller and Brie Wellington, and decided to expand the term yup , for young urban professionals, into yuppie . She recalled: “I thought it was a cute word. I didn’t think it would have the impact that it did. Everyone loved the piece, although there were a few angry people who said, “ ‘how dare you make fun of eating croissants.’ ”
Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Bob Greene also claims to have invented the term yuppie , as does New York City’s Village Voice newspaper. Kahn seems unconcerned. “If you want to get technical, it probably came out of a couple of places at once,” she said. But when it came time for her to write a book on the subject, she found that someone had beaten her to it.
“Galhood,” however, appears to be all hers.
For Kahn, galhood “started in puberty when I was learning about femininity. I was horrified by what it would mean to be a woman, getting involved in curling eyelashes and putting on make-up and spending infinity on your hair.”
The Ravages of Time
And even though Kahn and others in her age group were charter members in the women’s liberation movement, nothing seems to matter more to a “gal” nowadays then keeping the ravages of time at bay, she added.
“We just never really thought we’d grow up, let alone grow old. I have a friend who said, ‘Vanity, thy name is 40.’ When you’re 25 or 30, it seems ridiculous to take any chances with your body and experiment with potions to look or feel better.
“Now, if there is a Fountain of Youth, we’d do anything to find it. The superficial aspects of womanhood have become pronounced again. I think there’s considerable concern with hair and make-up in ways we’d thought we’d put to rest forever as young feminists.
“And all of us are back into it.”
End of Eligibility
So Kahn rails in print against the J.C. Penney letter that reminded her that she was celebrating her 42nd birthday and was nearing the end of her eligibility to apply for $20,000 in “valuable” life insurance protection.
“Et tu, J.C. Penney,” she wrote. “Is it not enough that my bones know it, that my aching back feels it, that my feet show it? But this was quite a birthday present, J.C. This was the unkindest cut of cake of them all.”
And she watches her 15-year-old daughter enter the throes of galhood “and I see the guys look at her. And that is a very strange feeling, one not unmixed with envy. And also fright.”
So, it should come as no surprise that Kahn is now getting ready for the next stage in her life--"when I become an old girl. There just comes some point when you realize you just can’t keep up the ‘I’m young and cute’ act. Some women keep that up until their 60s, and I’m impressed. More power to them.”
How does she know it’s time to become an “old girl?”
“I’d say with me it had to do with aches and pains. You know, my inability to stay awake. My needing glasses, which just happened this year. What a shock,” she said. “Suddenly I’m handicapped. You need these things to read--or else you need longer arms.”