Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The lifespan of "groovy" was, you know, exceedingly short

Just a few minutes ago hail was hurtling down out of the sky and bouncing all over the place. I heard it first, and then when I looked out the window, I heard my grandmother's voice in my head, saying "Look at that! It's hailing fit to beat the band!"-- at the moment I realized it was hail, not rain pummeling every surface in sight. And then it occurred to me that although I know what the expression "fit to beat the band" means, I don't have a clue where it came from. It's just one of those mysterious idioms people use. Other expressions from that generation my grandparents frequently used was "a hill of beans, "living daylights," and "all the tea in China." (I'm sure more will come to me, if I think longer about it.) A lot of these expressions are still with us, since certain idioms and piece of slang continue to appeal to succeeding generations. (Like "cool," for instance.)

Which then led me to think about the inverse, and how irritated I felt just a few days ago, reading a scene in a novel (published in 2010) depicting someone using the expression "Duh" (in its current, not its former, sense) in 1973. I can assure you, no one said "duh" in 1973. The author probably had not yet been born in 1973. And I could easily believe the book's editors hadn't been, either. Come to think of it, "Life on Mars" (both the British and the US series) were loaded with similar kinds of anachronisms. (But of course the makers of both of those shows could cover themselves by noting that they weren't depicting life in 1973 New York or London, only dreams or fantasies about it, and even claim, if they wanted to, that anachronisms were deliberate.)   

Yikes! I'm supposed to be working, not daydreaming about the mysteries of slang.


Josh said...

I think "hill of beans" owes its longevity to Humphrey Bogart. As for "groovy," come to think of it, I heard it used in the Eighties, but even anachronistic people like me and Ann haven't said it much in the past five years. Now, Chip at sixty-eight still says "Sure as God made little green apples", "If the mumbled truth be known", "Great googa-mooga", and so forth.

The use of "More coffee?" "No, I'm good" in the 2010 movie of The Killer Inside Me bothered me: is "No, I'm good" that old? I guess it could be: earlier this week, I got an email from a student in which he asserted that Stalin and FDR were "'two-faced,' to use a more modern expression." I had to explain to him that people said "two-faced" in the 1930s and that there was even a supervillain created in 1941 whose name was based on that adjective.

A similar problem is transatlanticisms: Neil Gaiman's Americans talking British English, for example.

Anonymous said...

Quite a lot of old expressions are logical, if you think about them. Doing something "to beat the band" means more loudly or with more oomph than a brass band. "A hill of beans" is a really short and unimpressive hill, unless you have access to billions of beans. "A bee in your bonnet"? Yeah, you'd be preoccupied in a single-minded way if a bee were trapped inside your headgear.

Whereas "groovy", what does that mean? Like corduroy? Like a vinyl record? It's several levels of abstraction away from its context, so that when its context is gone by, it's easy to let go of. Some few abstractions survive -- basically, "cool" and "hot" -- but the wayside is littered with vague and abstract slang.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Whenever I heard someone saying "groovy" I always thought of it as another way of saying "in the groove." (Vinyl reference? Maybe. But I feel certain "in the groove" was an expression used by musicians that got extended to certain kinds of drug experiences.)

"Bee in your bonnet" is another one my grandparents used (& I use it too)-- which reminds me of "ants in his pants." (Usually applied to children unable to sit still in church or in company.)

@Josh, about "More coffee?" "No, I'm good"-- IIRC, that's a different usage of "I'm good" than the one that came into vogue in the late 80s/early 90s, as a reply to "how are you? or "how's it going?". I can't imagine saying anent the state of one's coffee cup (as opposed to oneself), "I'm well." I think "I'm good" vis-a-vis coffee, is a morphing of "I'm fine," or "I'm okay."

It took me quite a while to be able to comfortably say "I'm good," when asked how I was doing. IIRC, the expressions" "I have issues with" and the general substitution of "issues" for what used to be known as "problems" started being used at around the same time.

The one piece of outdated slang I haven't been able to completely root out of my vocabulary is "neat."

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Not too long ago, I was driving on a highway with a much younger friend, and another driver did something idiotic. I screamed (as I usually do in such situations), "Where'd you get your driver's license, Sears and Roebuck?" And then I realized my friend wouldn't understand that reference to the old Sears catalogs from which you could order damn near anything, including houses (those Craftsman bungalows that now cost such a pretty penny). It was pretty much before my time, but I know about it. And I think it's a great insult to a stupid driver. I suppose the modern version would be "Where'd you get your driver's license, online?" I'm not sure any of it works in the modern driving culture, though.

Language and culture both change. I'm watching "Mad Men" season 1 right now and very impressed with all the things they get right. The blatant sexism is so accurate it makes my skin crawl.

Josh said...
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Josh said...

OMG, Timmi, "neat"? Do you go to the Carnegie Deli and order a pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise and lettuce and tomato?

Claire said...

Timmi, I was only three in 1973, so I can't speak to that particular year. But I'm pretty sure I was saying "no duh," by 1975, and this in the linguistic wilds of Tucson. It only took a few more years for the "no" part to get dropped entirely.

Timmi Duchamp said...

@Claire: rotflmao

Josh said...

@Claire, are you the person who wrote a witty blog post about changes in slang that involved your having come back to the U.S. to find everyone saying "my bad"?

Nancy Jane Moore said...

It seems to me that we said "duh" back in high school (before 1975) and that it's only changed these days due to the "D'oh" of Homer Simpson. But my memory is probably not completely reliable -- it could be that it just sounds like something we would have said back then.

It is really hard to keep up. I still say, "Oh, wow," which I'm sure dates me pretty damn specifically.

Josh said...

Found it—turns out it was a witty paragraph in a really astute blog post, one I might use in the classroom.