Book Review: I Love It When You Talk Retro

One of the perks of reviewing books is that publishers send you free copies. So I was surprised and pleased when I got a copy of Ralph Keyes I Love It When You Talk Retro in the mail. I’ve enjoyed Keyes’s books on misattributed quotations very much and this looked like another good one. The pleasure did not last long, however; once I started reading it, I was appalled.

The book purports to investigate the origins of fossilized words and expressions, terms like hoochie-coochie and drop a dime, which we use in everyday speech, but where social change has rendered their original referents archaic and forgotten. It’s a good topic for a book, and I was looking forward to reading it.

As I began to read, however, it quickly became apparent that Keyes did not even bother to do the most basic research. I did not set out to debunk the book, but I could not help but be taken aback by the large number of incorrect statements. I encountered statement after statement that I knew to be wrong and that could have been avoided by a thirty-second search of the OED. I’ve read a lot of books on word origins, and there are few that make so many egregious errors as this one does.

The following are just a few of the mistakes that I flagged on my first (and only) reading. I flagged many more as questionable, but have not bothered to verify whether they’re incorrect. I’m sure that if I did a thorough line-by-line check of the book, I’d find hundreds more.

  • Keyes attributes the term dry run to simulated bombing missions during WWII, but the term is much older and actually comes from late-19th century firefighters, who differentiated between drills that were wet runs that used water, and dry runs that did not.

  • The book says that Allen Pinkerton, founder of the famous detective agency and security firm, was the “first to take mug shots (‘mug’ being longtime slang for criminals).” This is misleading. While Pinkerton did indeed pioneer the use of photographs of criminals, Keyes’s etymology is all wet, as a quick check of the OED would have told him. The slang term mug, meaning a criminal, arose at about the same time that Pinkerton started to use his photographs, so it wasn’t “longtime slang.” Instead, both senses of mug, a criminal and a photograph of a criminal, probably come from a truly longtime slang sense of the word meaning a face. And the term mug shot doesn’t appear until 1950—long after Pinkerton had departed the scene.

  • Keyes dates the phrase lead-pipe cinch to 1907. A quick check of the OED would have shown that it is from at least 1898. And a look at wordorigins.org would have found citations from as early as 1889, and that its origin is almost certainly in horseracing, instead of completely unknown as Keyes states.

  • He repeats the canard that the men’s hat industry collapsed in the US after John F. Kennedy refused to wear a top hat during his 1961 inaugural address. It is true that JFK was hatless as he gave his famous “ask not what you’re country can do for you” speech, but he did wear a top hat throughout the rest of the inaugural ceremonies. And in fact, Kennedy revived the top hat tradition which had been abandoned by Eisenhower. Googling “hat JFK inauguration” turns up snopes.com as the first hit—always a good site to check for stories like this—which shows numerous photos from throughout the day of JFK wearing his top hat. What really killed the men’s hat industry was more likely the aerodynamic streamlining of automobiles, which reduced the headroom inside cars. Once it was no longer practical to wear a hat inside a car, men started leaving them at home, and eventually stopped wearing them altogether.

  • He says the phrase cha-ching!, an imitation of the sound of a cash-register ringing up a sale, comes from a 1992 commercial for Rally’s hamburgers. But the OED has the phrase dating back to 1980 and the shorter ching! appears in the Harvard Lampoon’s 1969 parody Bored of the Rings.

  • Keyes includes in his list of trade names that have become generic through widespread use Formica (still a registered trademark in the US), zipper (never a trademark for the fastening device, although it was originally a trade name for boots that were fastened with zippers), and aspirin (which became generic not through overuse, but because as the property of the German Bayer company, it was seized by the US and British governments as enemy property during WWI).

  • Keyes writes, “the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, whose telegraph operator kept signaling ‘SOS! SOS’ in vain, seared the acronym in the public mind.” While he is correct that the sinking of the Titanic made SOS famous, Keyes account is fanciful. The majority of the distress calls sent by the Titanic used the older CQD signal. And the efforts of the Titanic’s radio operators (there were two, not one) were not in vain. From the time the ship hit the iceberg and started to sink until power went out in the radio room several hours later, the radio operators were in constant communication with the numerous ships on the way to the rescue. Had it not been for the radio operators, many more would have died. It may seem like nitpicking, but it isn’t. Credibility requires that the facts of the story be reported accurately.

  • Keyes says the phrase on the nose, meaning precisely or on target, comes from broadcasting, where directors would signal the on-air announcers that they were on time by touching their nose. Unfortunately the OED has cites going back to 1893, long before any type of broadcasting was in existence.

  • He says that the slang term batty, meaning crazy or insane, comes from an 18th century physician named William Battie. The trouble is the slang term only dates to the opening years of the 20th century.

  • And he repeats the canard that the acronym AWOL dates to the Civil War, when truant soldiers were put to hard labor wearing signs that bore the acronym. While the phrase “absent without leave” does indeed date to the Civil War, the acronym only dates to WWI. And the bit about the signs is complete urban legend, applied to any number of acronyms.

There really is no excuse for a book like this. There are too many good books that don’t get published for shoddy work like this to see the light of day. And it makes me wonder about Keyes’s earlier books of quotations (a subject I know less about and am less likely to spot errors). Were they as bad as this one is?

I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech, by Ralph Keyes, St. Martin’s Press, 2009, $25.95.

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