Talking Retro

Friday, June 05, 2009


Baby-boomer journalists have a knack for alluding to characters from vintage TV series, plots from obscure films, and political events from who-knows-when. Author Ralph Keyes says these “verbal fossils” make it more difficult for an entire generation of young readers to have any clue what's being discussed.

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Comments [9]

Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

I really liked what Mr. Pettengill had to say about the Carter years and the damned lies the Republicans and the Reagan/Bush people began and the press has continued to perpetuate about his term in office for the Republicans for over twenty years. Of course, it didn't help that DC's Democrats abandoned him to these dogs. without a fight!

Two 'au pairs', one Joe Lieberman's former Scottish one and his then-current Brit one, overheard by another roommate of the Scot and me. "Vietnam. You know, the war where America dropped the bomb!" Roland and I rolled on the floor.

Jun. 11 2009 04:19 AM
alex from Brooklyn

I think that this was a poorly selected piece, primary because of the interview subject -- Ralph Keyes.

Mr. Keyes complains that younger potential listeners and readers don't understand these references, but it doesn't sound like he has actually done any research to back that up. He is complaining that some people don't know the origins of some idioms that some other people do know.

But there is a big difference between knowing the origin of an idiom and knowing what idiom itself means. The latter does not require the former.

Given the lack of real research behind his premise, and his status as an older boomer -- did he say that he is 63 years old? -- he hardly seems the appropriate person to interview about this potential barrier to younger audiences. In fact, he seems remarkable ignorant about how people learn language and idioms in the first place.

And so, he makes an interesting point for a dinner party conversation, but it is one that really seems to lack a firm grounding in fact.

On the other hand, his book about the sources of many more recent idioms could make for interesting reading. If he didn't imply that is is necessary resource for understanding many writers, journalists and pundits, I would take him much more seriously.

Jun. 08 2009 01:58 PM
margaret from Seattle

There are all kinds of ways that history is referenced. Rap is a very good way that people get a history lesson. For example, the lines by Michael Franti of the song "Oh my God":
"Scientists who's God is progress, a four-headed sheep is their
Latest project, the CIA runnin' like that Jones from Indiana
But they still won't talk about that Jones in Guyana
This ain't no cartoon, no one slips on bananas, do you really think
That, that car killed Diana? Hell I shot Ronald Reagan, I shot JFK
I slept with Marilyn, she sung me happy birthday"
This song made me realize that I did not know some history with the "Jones from Guyana". I had to look that one up. But good songs make you want to go look up info. Maybe a definition of good media would make one want to look up the references that are unknown.
History is interesting when the way we use the history is interesting. We can inspire aspiration to a higher level of discourse.

Jun. 07 2009 11:15 PM
Fabio Girelli-Carasi from New Jersey

But....... Georges Simenon actually was Belgian, not French.........

Jun. 07 2009 09:08 PM
ellen from ny

how are kids going to learn history at all! We can't let adolescents set the standards for all things. They have been allowed to do so in movies, music, tv shows, language, etc. The adults have abdicated. So our culture is determined by immaturity. Have you noticed announcers and voices in ads have the very young sound---years ago they sounded like mature adults.
Let the kids aspire and reach up when they hear our discourse. Stop reaching down.

Jun. 07 2009 03:26 PM
ROSALIE MINKIN from Philadelphia, Pa


Jun. 07 2009 10:47 AM
michael pettengill from merrimack, nh

What I find annoying when I can't respond and that drive me to snarky responses most people don't understand are the cultural references that are based on political spin contrary to the reality of the times.

The ones that come immediately to mind, and that I've seen commonly used, involve Jimmy Carter. For for example, any reference to Carter losing the Vietnam War, creating gas lines by imposing gas rationing, or for the terrible economy.

So, when people suggest that Obama is going to give us the worst economy since Carter, my snarky response is "please please, let Obama give us the Carter economy which added an average 200,000 jobs per month over his four year term."

When references are made to the tax and spend liberals like Clinton and Carter, I respond snarkily, "please please force me to pay high taxes like I did when Clinton was president; I miss the income that came with the Bush tax cuts."

And this gets to your point about guessing from the context what the reference to Joe Namath means. For many references, the meaning has been separated from the defining moment. The meaning of "Carter" as a cultural reference isn't his administration, but instead the campaign of Reagan, and the ensuing mythology that Reagan saved the US from the dismal performance of Carter, the big government tax and spend liberal who cut and ran.

But let's look at those who use "big-government, tax-and-spend liberal" like Rush Limbaugh. That is a culture reference from at least as far back as the sixties, and probably the fifties. Then it was tied to some actual political differences between candidates, but today is a merely a long version of the insult "liberal" that is a culture reference of and to Reagan and Goldwater's generation. People sort of get the reference, but does it make any sense at all to people under the age of 40?

Jun. 06 2009 05:12 PM
sid from Miami

Cultural references ALL cultural references are for those who read and who keep on top of things. We ALL miss some references from time to time. No one generation owns them all it is only those who make no effort to learn lose.

Jun. 06 2009 03:22 PM
Kahlid from Philly PA

Those "kids" are so connected, they can look up any "obscure" reference as fast as Matthews can spout it.

Jun. 05 2009 10:02 PM

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