If I tell you that my closet would put Imelda Marcos to shame, would you know what I was saying? What if I were having a June Cleaver flashback? Or were worried about an Eve Harrington in the office down the hall?
Probably not, if you are 20, 30, even 40; good chance, if you’re 50 or above.
That’s the point Ralph Keyes made in a recent Editor & Publisher column warning writers to avoid what he calls “retrotalk: employing terminology rooted in our past that may not be familiar to younger readers. Or immigrants. Or anyone at all, for that matter.”
Ouch! His words made me feel as dated as Alice Kramden. As if Rod Serling might step up any minute. As if somebody dropped a dime on me. As if I was The Man Who Fell to Earth. (A helpful glossary is at the end of this post.)
But wait a minute—do I really want to fill my speech with references to Gossip Girl and Lil Wayne? Besides, I never read a Horatio Alger story, carried coals to Newcastle, went to hell in a hand basket—all phrases bandied about by my parents’ and grandparents’ generations—and somehow I managed to figure out what they meant.
Of course, there was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when the culture was far more united—everybody watched the same TV shows, listened to the same top songs, read the same books, or at least heard them discussed enough to understand the references. Before cable, with its limitless options, we were almost force-fed earlier cultures: A great deal of TV programming once involved broadcasting old black and white movies, so in a sense I grew up with a previous generation, as well as my own.
How else would I have discovered Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Women or All About Eve? The last, incidentally, provided the title for my blog, The Bumpy Ride—Bette Davis’ snarling caution, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” more often misquoted as “bumpy ride.” My 35-year-old editor at True/Slant had no idea what I was talking about—but I think he got the idea (bumpy is a big clue).
Still, I know Keyes’s point is valid: A couple of years ago, rehearsing a speech for an awards ceremony, I made a reference to Lady Macbeth’s hand washing. The 20- and 30-something staffers in the auditorium had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained, they suggested substituting the cable TV detective Monk.
Good advice, and I took it. But I can’t help but wonder… shouldn’t any educated person be familiar with Macbeth? At least the Cliffs Notes version? Are we ditching Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet as well?
Whew! At least Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes got us off the hook with that doomed couple … for a decade or two.
Glossary of Forgotten References
Imelda Marcos: Wife of the former dictator of the Philippines (deposed in 1986), renowned for her 2700 pairs of shoes
June Cleaver: Ideal, kitchen-bound wife/mother on the old sitcom Leave It to Beaver (debuted 1957)
Eve Harrington: Scheming assistant to stage star Margot Channing in the 1950 Bette Davis film, All About Eve
Alice Kramden: Sardonic, long-suffering wife of Jackie Gleason’s New York City bus driver, Ralph Kramden, in the 1950s series The Honeymooners
Rod Serling: Creator and host of the 1960s supernatural series, The Twilight Zone, in which various unsuspecting humans get caught in otherwordly (and usually terrifying) situations.
Drop a Dime: To turn in a criminal to the police by “dropping a dime” in a pay phone (a public means of communicating on the street, predating cell phones), back when a phone call cost 10 cents and pay phones were on every city corner.
The Man Who Fell to Earth: 1976 science fiction film starring David Bowie (a rock icon) as an extraterrestrial creature who finds himself in the USA. Currently being remade (phew! saved that one!).