Old Hat – What’s That? or: Old expressions never die; they just fade away.
Do you remember the original? “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” If you recall the quote and who said it, you must be almost as old as the general in question at the time he said it: Douglas MacArthur, 71, in his farewell speech to Congress in 1951 after having been fired by President Truman for speaking out of turn.
I’ve been struck lately by the number of words or phrases that are no longer current, but increasingly jump unbidden to mind. It happens sometimes when I’m talking with Luise and have to explain a meaning; though her English is near-perfect, it doesn’t always extend to obscure American expressions from earlier decades. Are these words now popping up from the recesses of my long-term memory because the other one is getting so short? Another symptom of aging in place?
As I reflect on growing older I’ve also been thinking about the incredible changes wrought by technology. (Wrought? Does that word still exist? Who said, “What hath God wrought?” – another oldster, for sure: after the Bible, it was Samuel Morse in the very first telegraph message, 1844.) Speaking of the telegraph, can anyone else remember a time when a long-distance telephone call from one’s grandparents was a major event that occurred only to report serious illness or announce an impending visit and was short and awkward? Of course, all the new inventions have changed our vocabulary as well as our lives dramatically: cell phone, Internet, iPad, Kindle, email, Google, bit, byte, botnet. Facebook and Twitter: what used to be a name for the high school annual is now an instant path to thousands of friends, and what once referred to a bird’s chatter is now the world’s way of communicating – even revolutions – across borders. Revolutionary! And the changes continue to accelerate with alarming speed: Long-play records ruled the musical living rooms from the 1950’s to the mid-1980’s; then compact discs dominated till the rise of MP3 in the early 2000’s. The span shrank from 30 to 15 years. The VCR was the home media technology of choice from the late 70’s until it was overtaken in the early 2000’s by the DVD, a period of some 20 years. Now, after about half that time, we hear that DVD’s are on the way out in favor of various forms of streaming and downloading to our digital, often hand-held devices. (What would my mother have made of this sentence? A “hand-held device” in her day was a steam iron or a portable mixer.)
More and more expressions are changing meaning or becoming old hat, including “old hat.” (Nowadays one would probably say, “That’s so, like, yesterday.”) So I’ve decided to take up the challenge of preserving such fading bits of linguistic heritage and use them when I can. I regard it as a defense of my culture and identity as a senior citizen and already long-time member of the AARP. Here are a few examples; I’m sure you have many others.
One of my categories is made up of common expressions and exclamations. They seem pretty quaint to me now, and I doubt that I’d use them, having etched more forceful, modern expletives (which I’ll omit here) into my usage. But here are some earlier ways I remember to express astonishment, enthusiasm, anxiety or disapproval:
• “Gee whiz,” “golly gee,” “Holy Moly,” “Holy cow!” (all gleaned from comic books, not to forget the magical “Shazam!” from my favorite, the original Captain Marvel comics of the 1940’s).
• “You’re darn tootin!” (revived in a Boston Globe cartoon a few years back poking fun at George W.’s vocabulary as compared to the eloquence of Tony Blair).
• “My land!” and “Land o’ Goshen!” (from my grandparents’ generation).
• “Goodness gracious,” and “Oh, dear!” (from my parents’ generation).
“Are you nuts?” was a favorite rejoinder of mine at about age 9 or 10, one for which I was repeatedly reprimanded. And the first time I said “damn!” in the presence of my mother (it was at my wedding), she seemed truly horrified: “I never taught you to say that!” She was just beginning to realize how gravely she had failed her eldest daughter.
Words related to gender roles have certainly come a long way. Men and boys used to be taunted with more imaginative names than today’s “wuss”: “pantywaist” and “milquetoast” suggested a certain delicacy as well as effeminacy and weakness; both terms originated in the 1930’s. And remember the “I was an 80-pound weakling” ad on the 1940’s comic page? “Sissy” was about the worst thing a boy could be called in my day. Come to think of it, the basic message has not changed: then as now, males must dissociate themselves from females and their attributes. If anything, the imperative has become stronger.
Girls used to be called “tomboys” and women “housewives,” terms that have virtually dropped out of currency. Now we have the exceptional “stay-at-home-mom,” but the tomboy has vanished into thin air. Nowadays girls can be and do anything they want, as we all know – as long as they maintain their “femininity,” of course. Some words for women seem to have weathered centuries of social and cultural transformation: “bitch” and “whore” are two unfortunate examples. Despite feminist gains, sexist and misogynist attitudes and ideology are alive and well. (The recent wave of “Slut Walks,” however, is evidence that such terms and thinking do not go unchallenged, even if controversially.)
Some fading occupations and professional names evoke a fond image from my childhood. We used to have a “milkman” who left bottles of milk and cream on the porch, and a “breadman” whose horse-drawn (really!) truck brought us Danish pastries as well as our regular white bread. The “paper boy” or girl would spin past on her bike riding no-hands like a circus performer and skillfully toss our newspaper precisely onto the porch. We used to go to our “family doctor,” (later called a general practitioner or g.p.) for shots and all sorts of advice. He (and it was a he) would even make house calls if needed. Nowadays, you’re lucky if your p.c.p. remembers your name – if you’re lucky enough to have such a provider in the first place, that is.
Speaking of medical issues, some formerly serious problems have apparently lost their urgency. “Neuritis and neuralgia” once led the list of painful conditions one needed to treat. Radio and magazine advertising used to warn us against bad breath (“even your best friend won’t tell you”) or b.o. (body odor) lest we lose our place in society. Such ills have been replaced by others, such as depression, E.D. or aging skin, that require more up-to-date and costly remedies. Simple products like Unguentine, Vaseline and Mercurochrome held their respected place in our family medicine chest. Now we are urged to buy antibiotic salves and antibacterial hand-wipes. One former home remedy I definitely don’t miss is the enema our mother would subject us to at the drop of a hat. (Another old-hat expression.) No matter what the ailment, it seemed, out came the enema bag. Its functional relative, the “douche bag,” however, has gained enormous currency among the young as a slang expression indicating sharp disapproval, mostly of a male individual; “douche bag” should perhaps be included in the list of gender terms.
Then there are words that refer to objects or items of clothing belonging to bygone eras: the phonograph or record player and its once-treasured LPs and 45’s would fall into this category, as do such old-hat has-beens as the dust mop, dustbin, mucilage, crinolines, girdles, and patent leather shoes, aka Mary Janes.
Gosh, so many treasures lost in the dustbin of time! Nothing to do but cry “Shazam!” and return as Mary Marvel to the fabled world of milkmen and enemas. – Or not.