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MENTAL DOODLES: Memory, The Line and Mystery

Old Fashioned Slang, Words and Phrases

EDITORIAL NOTE: Serendipity is a delightful word and, of course, it is an equally delightful occurrence.

After I had finished writing today's post about one kind of language, I heard from Kirsten Jacobs, a young woman who is the education manager at LeadingAge in Portland, Oregon, a highly respected association of more than 6,000 not-for-profit, member organizations in the United States that provide care and services for elders.

I told you about her back in August after she and I, over a period of a couple of hours at a local French bakery, had a terrific conversation about another kind of language, that of old age.

This week, Kirsten's interview with me, titled
Language Can Change Our World, has been published at the LeadingAge website where you can read it - and I hope you will.

* * *

If you don't count appearance, hardly anything dates people like the slang words and other phrases they use from their youth, and it goes without saying that the purpose of slang (when it's new, anyway) is exclusionary – to keep the uninitiated out of the “in crowd.”

The thing about slang (not to be confused with jargon and colloquialisms) is that it usually begins among young people and by the time people of my age hear it, it's already out of date.


Even that recent word cloud I found somewhere on the internet is at least partially out of date. It is missing on fleek (meaning: very good) which itself is old now that it's popular in certain quarters on television.

It is also missing cray, stated as cray cray by some or spelled kray, which means crazy.

Sometimes “new” slang is old slang. The recent lit means exactly what it meant 60 years ago when I was in high school: intoxicated, drunk or stoned. And I recall throwing shade (meaning: insulting someone) from when I lived in San Francisco in the early 1960s.

It's hard to know with new slang what will have sticking power with the general population through the years, and later generations can be as confused by their parents' and grandparents' slang as elders are of theirs.

This all came to mind a few of days ago when Darlene Costner sent me an email that is making the rounds. It is apparently from a column written by Richard Lederer who, I found upon checking around, is a lifelong teacher and most importantly, word lover with a wonderful sense of humor.

Here are some excerpts from the email about old-time language.

(NOTE: I've not used quotation marks because the email arrived in the usual messy way of messages that have been forwarded frequently through too many formats so it's hard to know what is the original. Be assured, however, that having now read other language works by Lederer, I feel assured this is primarily his work.)

About a month ago, I illuminated some old expressions that have become obsolete because of the inexorable march of technology. These phrases included don’t touch that dial, carbon copy, you sound like a broken record and hung out to dry.

Some other old-fashioned phrases:

Heavens to Betsy! Gee whillikers! Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat! Holy moley! We were in like Flynn and living the life of Riley, and even a regular guy couldn’t accuse us of being a knucklehead, a nincompoop or a pill. Not for all the tea in China!

Like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, we have become unstuck in time, he writes.

We wake up from what surely has been just a short nap and before we can say, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle! or This is a fine kettle of fish!, we discover that the words we grew up with, the words that seemed omnipresent as oxygen, have vanished with scarcely a notice from our tongues and our pens and our keyboards.

Lederer goes beyond slang in this piece with a list of items that might sound like something from a foreign language to young people. Jalopie, for example. Mickey Mouse wristwatches, hula hoops, skate keys, candy cigarettes, little wax bottles of colored sugar water and an organ grinder’s monkey.

He also identifies some wonderful old phrases, not slang, many of which you might still use and if not, certainly recognize:

Pshaw. The milkman did it. Think about the starving Armenians. Bigger than a bread box. Banned in Boston. The very idea! It’s your nickel. Don’t forget to pull the chain. Knee high to a grasshopper. Turn-of-the-century. Iron curtain. Domino theory. Fail safe. Civil defense. Fiddlesticks!

For people who love to have fun with language, Richard Lederer is a great find. He is a public speaker on subjects ranging from language to The Gift of Age. He has written a bunch of books about language and some other subjects.

His weekly language column is published in the The San Diego Union-Tribune with a link from his Facebook page.

Verbivore is his website where you can find dozens of past columns, dates for his public speaking engagements, book information and more.

Undoubtedly, you are reminded of other out-of-date slang, words and phrases not mentioned today. Let us know in the comments.

See ‘ya later, alligator!


After awhile, crocodile....

Gadzooks! This post is a gas.

They're just a bunch of squares . . .

Stop jerking my chain..

You can put that where the sun don't shine.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

How cool is it that cool is still cool? Or maybe not...

I wish someone would create a website that graphed slang words on timelines. And visually convey how words change meanings. Think of all the variations the work "geek" has gone through. When I was young, I'd hear "circus geek" and now we hear "computer geek" - and how much has the intent of the word stayed the same?

That would make for some great infographics, don't you think?

I knew Richard Lederer in Concord, NH, when he taught at St Paul's School. He attended the same Unitarian church as I, , we met by happenstance on an airline flight, and we even shared a tenant who had to be evicted (different places) by both of us! His daughter is/was a world class poker player. Glad to see he made Ronni's blog!

So funny: Gadzooks' transalation into german language is: "Kruzitürken" which means "damn".
Although I read it as "Gesocks" which is origin jiddisch and leo.org's translation is "riff-raff".

BTW german language just is bad spoken jiddisch;-).

I'm at sixes and sevens.

I still remember the shocked look on my daughter's face when I said someone had zits. It seems that the word that meant hickeys (pimples for the young crowd) had morphed into meaning a love mark. Oh the horror!

Richard Lederer is a delight and if you love language his book on the Play of Words let's you get in on the fun...more fun than a barrel of monkeys! Thanks for including his website.

Willard Espy who sadly, is no longer with us, has also written a few books on the joys of language. Also Howard Rheingold wrote of words and phrases from around the world including "lagniappe", and today I found "plunderbund" (Dutch)-meaning a group or alliance of financial or political interests that exploits the public....certainly a term we can understand!

Far out!

I wonder if "he/she's no brain surgeon" will have the same meaning now that Ben Carson is shattering the notion that brain surgeons are very smart.

When I was in high school and college, we called people we considered weird "fruit." I was reminded of this recently when I made a digital photo album of my early life and saw a photo of myself as a college student taken in my room. It was from a period of time when I was down on men, and in the background of the photo is a sign I'd posted on my wall saying "boys are fruit."

"she treats him like a red-headed stepchild."

"drop a dime on him" meaning to make a phone call that would get someone in trouble.

I wonder about the fate of 'on line' which is what New Yorkers say for what others mean by 'in line'—now that that has another meaning. Especially here in the Midwest I wonder about how I'll be understood when I ask someone who appears to be milling about if they're on line....

If I use any phrase that's painfully outdated, I can count on my son or grandkids to call me on it. But at the same time I pick up some of the new stuff from them. Most modern slang makes my skin crawl, however.

So glad you have discovered Richard Lederer. I was part way through your blog today and was just about to refer you to him when I read that you had already found him! He and his wife Simone are long-time friends of mine here in San Diego. Have been to many great and very interesting Christmas parties at his house.

He has written quite a few fun books that you might enjoy too. I have sent many of them to other "verbivore" members of my family and friends. Among my favorites are The Gift of Age, Get Thee to A Punnery, The Cunning Linguist, Puns Spoken Here, and Anguished English!

Richard is a rare and brilliant man, and is truly 'larger than life'.

Bad news travels fast. Who'd thunk it? Slippier than snot. SNAFU'd. Sectioned 8. She'd steal pennies off her dead father's eyes. Dead as a door nail. Haul ass. He can't lift his own. Cat got your tongue? Splittin' hairs. I'm outta here!

Holy Toledo. Hold your horses. He's a young whipper snapper. She's no spring chicken.

He's a broccoli meaning he's as dumb as a vegetable.
Dumb as dirt.
Dumb as a box of rocks.
Everything's Jake.

From junior high years:
Boss (adj., very good, very cool)
Fungus meatball (noun; anything or anyone disgusting)
Doofus membrane (noun; stupid person)

Bee's knees , cat's pajamas, right on(you got it right), riding the short bus(intellectually challenged), riding the dog (taking the Greyhound) fox (sexy woman,) dog (unattractive woman,) scumbums (stoners) dorks (geeks)

Slang's a little like music--each generation uses it as a badge of membership. And yes, some of the oldest phrases get recycled.

I notice you haven't mentioned the one that I hate, hate, hate, and which has become SO common that hardly anybody under 70 can get through a sentence without using it. I swear to you here and now, it will never fall from my lips:



.... thought I'd add some that are still around and are still ageist/sexist...

Over the hill ...
Mutton dressed as lamb ..
Face like an angel, throat like a turkey...
Only as old as the woman he feels...

Big thanks to Ronni and all of you! I smiled reading and remembering these wonderful sayings. I use many of them on a regular bases. I am wondering which ones I use most often.

Off to read the Leading Age.

Heard in high school staff room...

"Hey, it's Richard Cranium" (Dick Head)

Some others..

Il y a quelque chose qui ne marche pas. (Mom's way of saying "that person is loony tunes.")

Good from afar, far from good.

Hubba Hubba.

My word!

He was all puffed up like a penguin.

Don't get your knickers in a twist.

Hold your horses.

She's/ he's a real bow wow.

Eyes bigger than belly.

"But I didn't do anything."

"That's right, from the day you walked in the door."

Hot shot.

Banty rooster.

Mister Stick-shift (use your imaginations)




"Tell it to the Marines."

Responding to someone making up excuses for what he or she did or didn't do.

"Mum's the word." (This is a secret)

Knock his block off.

Punch his lights out.

I'm gonna kick his a$$ from here to Mexico.

Sluff off. Squirrel around. He's lower than whale s***. Like a broken record. Mary Jane. LaLa Land. Last laugh laughs last. Grim, "Do not pass go . . ." Chill. Cat's pajamas. Stone sober. Upchuck. Busted.

Neato. Love the vibes. And I still say icebox.

It's a very small thing but it absolutely marks me as from another time. When I like something I say ""Neat". Even other people in my age range say "cool". Younger people say "Cool" or various other things that never stick in my memory.

The teen slang in-term of approval I remember was "Keen!" We'd also say 'Neat," but that was at best mild approval. The high school football hero who was also a top scholar and very handsome -- we girls all agreed that he was keen.

At that time, 'cool' was something those strange hippy people down in California said. (And they had acquired it from the Beat Generation before them.) We would never have used it. Now 'cool' has outlasted them all. I think it's almost standard English, carrying only a faint aura of its past slangdom.

Kate, I hang around young people too much on the Internet. I'm afraid I do, quite consciously and with malice aforethought, sometimes call good things 'awesome'. So far, though, I haven't actually used the word 'awesomesauce'!

"Sweet" - got this from my grandson, meaning cool or neat....Totally awesome, The other phrases I thought of have slipped my memory. How about "bean counter", shrink, and domestic engineer for job descriptions. I learned a new one recently from a Brit - chaletmaid, pronounced shallymaid, one who is hired to clean up after the guests renting a vacation chalet. This is fun, but enough is enough!

For Kate it's "awesome", for me .... I swear, if I hear "pe-e-r-r-rfect" one more time from a waitperson or other customer sercice type, I'll barf or toss my cookies.

IMHO, the very worst, abomination now imbedded in the language of discourse is "like" which came out of where? When? So. Cal? TV? Will it ever go away? I'm bamboozled, flummoxed and discombobulated.

Great topic, Ronni.

Close, but no cigar. Swave (for suave).

I hope someone corrected my error in confusing 'hickeys" with 'zits". Hickey was the slang word for pimples and was changed into meaning a love mark 30 years later. The slang word for pimples during my daughter's teen age years was zits.

I just thought of one from WWII. Kilroy was here.

I enjoyed The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (in English).

This is not what I thought it would be!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My Mother used to say "You've got to pull your socks up my lad" when she thought I needed to work harder at school. Working harder was another phrase that was unhelpful since working harder could mean being more diligent about what you were doing badly or wrongly. Another was "You have a rude awakening coming to you". And when she couldn't think of someone's name she'd say Mrs Hoojit.
My Father would say "It's five and twenty to six" rather like Four and Twenty Blackbirds from the nursery rhyme. "Presently" has gone out of use now. These memories are from a childhood back in the 1950s and early 60s

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