Pop quiz. Do you know what the phrase “stuck in a groove” means? How about “drop a dime?” What if I quoted a line New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about Hillary Clinton during the election — to wit, “In the first debate she’s Emily Post. Now she’s Howard Beale.” If you got precisely none of those references, chances are you’re under 30, and that’s a problem according to Ralph Keyes, whose new book is called I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hootchie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech. Journalists, he says, run the risk of alienating potential readers, especially young people and immigrants, when they use retro catch phrases and allude to films from their Baby Boomer youth. Someone, he says, has got it bad when it comes to retro speak is MSNBC host Chris Matthews. Here he is, rappin’ with Pat Buchanan.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Pat, are you going to spend the next three years playing St. John the Baptist for Sarah Palin?
[LAUGHTER] I mean, I — you never miss a beat here. You pushed for her harder than any — what did she do for — I'm sorry, her husband was in the Split from America party with you.
PAT BUCHANAN: [LAUGHS]
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Is that what — she was a pitchfork family or what?
PAT BUCHANAN: You know, Chris, Chris
CHRIS MATTHEWS: What is the love affair here about?
PAT BUCHANAN: Your problem is, your problem, again, is this woman problem you've got, Chris. For two weeks —
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Oh, here we go. [LAUGHS] Oh.
[LAUGHTER/OVERTALK] In fact, I forgot that you were the new Alan Alda of our times.
RALPH KEYES: Well, I call Chris Matthews the king of retro talk because he is constantly — he’s 63, I'm 64, so we're age mates, and he’s constantly throwing around phrases like a Perry Como calmness, a Norma Rae America, Borscht Belt or a blue plate special. We often hear people in the media bemoaning, oh, my God, younger people don't even watch the news anymore. All they're doing is texting and Twittering. Well, how can we win them back? Well, I don't think using a lot of reference to dated movies and events from the Boomer past is a good way to approach them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Garfield and I were talking about this issue, and it turns out that our kids know all the references to any '70s sitcom that either of us could possibly dole out because of Nick at Night and TV Land. Maybe they don't know the movie references but the TV ones are a piece of cake.
RALPH KEYES: Yeah. I think I've, in the past, maybe made a little too much out of TV references, maybe partly because I grew up in Puerto Rico and we had no TV at that time, in the '50s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, you've revealed a lot about yourself by saying you grew up without a lot of TV in the '50s in Puerto Rico. I can see the built up frustration wandering around in a fog of references that you wouldn't understand, hence this book.
RALPH KEYES: Well, Brooke, it’s worse than that. I had no idea that my first name had comic overtones until we came back from Puerto Rico to Illinois and everybody starts saying to me, hey, Ralphie boy.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And I had no idea [LAUGHING] what they were talking about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ralph Kramden?
RALPH KEYES: Ralph Kramden.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the point I was trying to make about the television references is that we can draw the conclusion from that little bit of anecdotal experience that the solution probably isn't to shear our language of history but to make successive generations more familiar with it. If a kid doesn't understand about Nixon’s missing 18 minutes, it means that it didn't make it into their history class and maybe it should have.
RALPH KEYES: Well, my point isn't that these types of allusions, where you might expect to have learned them in school, are the ones that you need to be concerned about. But I heard John Berman on ABC — the news correspondent made a reference to a Joe Namath like prediction. I think it was Romney predicting he was going to win the presidential nomination. Okay, he’s referring to Super Bowl III, where the Jets beat the Baltimore Colts - big upset. Joe Namath had made a prediction that they were going to win. Joe Namath was the Jets’ quarterback. Well, people who grew up watching NFL football as I did, in the '60s, got that allusion, but even a lot of fervent sports fans who are younger today I'm not sure knew what he was talking about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm not a sports fan. I wouldn't have gotten the allusion, though I knew who Joe Namath was. I could have guessed. But even if I didn't, who cares?
RALPH KEYES: Well, there are two issues here, Brooke. I mean, first of all, the issue is, do you get the allusion in the sense of the point being clear? And often you can kind of figure out, as you say, from the context what point he’s trying to make even if you don't know the exact allusion. But the second point is, are you dating yourself when you use these allusions? Are you as much as saying to your audience, I come from a certain generation; I don't know if people out there who are younger than me get these allusions and I'm not sure I care?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has there been any backlash in response to your article?
RALPH KEYES: Boy, did they beat up on me in the comments, the reporters and others writing in and saying how dare I question their right to use pop culture references. But then it was very interesting. A whole second wave mostly of bloggers said, well, wait just a second. You know, when I read newspapers and watch TV shows, I feel like I'm butting in on a Boomer conversation and it doesn't make me feel part of things. So in my estimation, the cavalry came galloping over the hill, to use a retro reference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But don't you think that the reverse is also true? In fact, isn't it a mark of youth to develop [LAUGHS] a language that alienates their parents?
RALPH KEYES: Oh, sure. That’s what youth [LAUGHING] is all about. But, people who use slang today will
"Good Answer Remix"
by Nick Zammuto