One of the curious things about the English language is the way words and phrases come in and go out of popularity from one generation to the next. Within my lifetime words like “jalopy” have disappeared altogether from common usage. My guess would be that the average high school student has no idea what the word jalopy means. Just for elucidation, a jalopy is an old car in a dilapidated condition.
Now that we know what a jalopy is that’s just hunky-dory, isn’t it? What? Another term few have ever heard before? To say that something is “hunky-dory” means everything is fine, or as the dictionary says, “about as well as one could wish.”
Sometimes, as technology advances, so does the language that goes with it and, by the same token, other words go out of style. Take, for example, the phrase, “don’t touch that dial.” The way people used to change channels on a television set was by changing the dial setting on the set from 4, to 6, to 8, or 13. Those were the only channels we could receive back in the day! Usually just before a commercial break, an announcer would admonish viewers, “Don’t to touch that dial,” which meant changing to another channel.
How many young people know what a “carbon copy” is? The dictionary says a carbon copy is, “a duplicate of anything written or typed by using carbon paper.” It can also mean, “a near or exact duplicate of a given person or thing” as in “she’s a carbon copy of her mother.” While we’re at it, what’s “carbon paper”? Turning again to the dictionary, carbon paper is, “a thin sheet of paper coated on one side with a dark waxy pigment that is transferred by the pressure of writing or of typewriter keys onto the copying surface” to produce a second exact copy of what was written on the top sheet. Computers have all but done away with the need for carbon paper – and forced phrases like “she’s a carbon copy of her mother” completely out of existence.
Now, what does it mean to say somebody sounds like “a broken record”? That phrase comes from the days when music was recorded on wax or vinyl discs – your grandparents may have some records actually recorded on wax. So, when a wax or vinyl record was severely scratched, (broken, in other words), it will skip and play the same groove over and over again. Therefore, to “sound like a broken record” means to repeat yourself over and over again in a “tiresome” or “irritating” manner.
Here’s one from that was popular in the 1930s that you never hear anymore. To describe someone as having a lot of “moxie” meant the person had “the ability to face difficult situations with spirit and courage.” But where does the word come from? In the 1870s and 1880s, there was a patent medicine called Moxie which was advertised as building up your nerve. But since no one uses the word any more, I don’t suppose it matters what it means. On the off-chance you do hear it, you now know its meaning.
Have you ever heard anybody say they were going to put on their “best bib and tucker”? What on earth does that mean? Here’s what Randle Holme said in “The Academy of Armory”: “This term originated not in any figurative sense but literally – both bibs and tuckers were items of women’s clothing from the 17th to late 19th centuries. Early bibs were somewhat like modern day bibs, although they weren’t specifically used to protect clothes from spilled food as they are now. Tuckers were lace pieces fitted over the bodice, sometimes called ‘pinners’ or ‘modesty pieces’.” Who knew?
One of the less easily explained outdated phrases is “Heavens to Betsy.” It is speculated that it originated sometime around 1850 and is probably a euphemism for others phrases like “for Heaven’s sake” or for some phrases that were considered blasphemous.
On a lighter note, have you ever heard anybody say he was “in like Flynn?” Wikipedia says: “In like Flynn” is a slang phrase meaning “having quickly or easily achieved a goal or gained access as desired.” In the 1940s, the term became associated with the actor Errol Flynn, who was known as something of a ladies man. So, to be “in like Flynn” also came to mean to be successful in love, so to speak.
Have you ever heard anybody say they were “living the life of Riley?” Probably not. In any case, living the “life of Riley” means having an easy life. The phrase is reputed to have come from a popular song from the 1880s. The song was called “Is That Mr. Reilly?” written by a fellow named Pat Reilly. The song described what its hero would do if he was suddenly to come into a fortune. That makes some sense, I suppose.
In more recent times, everybody used the words “swell” or “keen,” but when was the last time you heard anybody say anything was swell or keen? Those words have gone the way of beehives, pageboys, spats, knickers, fedoras poodle skirts, saddle oxfords, and pedal pushers.
Many of the words we grew up with seemed to be everywhere, but many have vanished with scarcely any notice. Where have all those old phrases gone?
Here are just a few more: “The milkman did it.” “Knee-high to a grasshopper, and “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
Oh, well! In Shakespeare’s time none of this would have made any sense to anyone; that’s how much language has changed, and continues to change.
That’s – 30 – for this week.