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  • Exploring the scuttlebutt behind American 'Retro' phrases

  • 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"?
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  • 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"?
    There's no doubt that great American cliches are, well, cliches. Whether we speak in street slang or have a broad, beautiful vocabulary, we all use little bits of language that come from another time and place.
    However you like to talk, it can be funny and fun to discover the origins of classic phrases and what popularized them.
    Ralph Keyes sought to explain hundreds of sayings, giving the history behind them, how they developed and how they're used now, in his book "I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech," which hit shelves this week. We asked Keyes for the scuttlebutt.
    Question: Have you always loved language, particularly catchphrases and cliches? Why did you write this book?
    Answer: 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 (is when), years ago, our younger son came up to his mother and asked: "Who's this 'Cher Noble' I keep hearing about?"
    Q: What's your favorite saying or phrase? Are there any you use often?
    A: 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."
    Q: Is there a saying that really bothers you?
    A: 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.
    Q: In exploring the origins of these phrases, were there any that surprised you?
    A: 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.
    Q: How long did it take you to do the research for this book?
    A: 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.
    Q: Why do people love to hang onto and continue to use particular phrases?
    A: 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.
    Q: I noticed that many catchphrases come from "The Godfather" and from boxing. Why is that? Why not tennis?
    A: That's a really good question. Boxing has a long history of good sportswriting, 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 horse head, "go to the mattresses," "make your bones." These are great phrases.
    Q: "Blade Runner," "Dr. Strangelove," "On the Waterfront" ... Americans love to talk movies. Do you think people relate to words in this way because they have already been given such a strong visual?
    A: 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.
    Q: What are your predictions — what words will be retro terms in the future?
    A: I like "Truman Show." This whole notion that we're on TV and we don't know it. I think Tracy Flick (the character from the film "Election").
    The woman who took Hillary (Rodham Clinton)'s place in the Senate — people, in discussing her, refer to her as a Tracy Flick.
    Future retro terms might include the most lasting phrase from the 2008 campaign, "going rogue." The buzzwords of the hour are "reboot," "reset" and "hit the reset button."
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