Lost and found

I noticed recently that the last speaker of a particular Scottish dialect has died. I’m starting to feel a kinship. The inciting incident was when I suggested to a young friend that we put a new projector through its paces.


Then, in a phone conversation with my son, I said that a panelist on a show he asked me to watch seemed a bit wet behind the ears. He didn’t say “huh?,” but I could hear it in his voice.

Writers love to collect colorful phrases. We buy books such as A Hog on Ice and make lists of cute expressions. I wrote in last month’s blog about my love of jargon and technical terms. I adore incorporating zoo-specific terms into my mysteries.

But something different is happening here. It has to do with recognizing the sound of a typewriter, with knowing how to drive a stick shift, with unhesitatingly filling in the names of dead movie stars on crossword puzzles.

Yes, it’s an age thing. I have become a repository of antique metaphors, phrases in my working language that no one under thirty (forty?) gets.

This seems so unfair. We still use all manner of phrases and words from Shakespeare. Why am I outdated? Yes, I pick up modern terms and slang by diligent eavesdropping and by reading Wired and so on. Yet comfortable phrases slip out of my mouth, and only when they dangle in the air, unsupported by comprehension, do I realize they are long past their pull-date.

Either that, or they have lost their original meaning. My husband was astonished when I told him that “backlog” referred to building a real fire–the big log in back that burns out last. And he’s my age.

Many of the idioms and metaphors that cause me this grief come from farm and horse culture. Ride roughshod over someone, have blinders on, give free rein (no, not reign and certainly not rain) all may have lost their source meanings if not their sense entirely. These punchy, juicy metaphors come from a lost past, from lives few of us lead anymore.

What’s a person to do?

I can learn to knit and sit in a rocker on my front porch spouting quaintisms. I’ll need to lose a few teeth and learn to cackle.

Or I can ignore the issue entirely and carry on with the assumption that Youth Today is appallingly ignorant and I, a Senior Woman of Letters, must do my small part to educate them in their culture. This sounds like by far the more stylish option. So to speak.

So tell me, what should I be sure to incorporate into my personal dialogue? What fading meanings most need revitalizing? I shall do my best.


4 Responses to Lost and found

  1. Dialect is the joy of my life, and the fact that I’m old enough to remember all the quaint country phrases my grandparents used at the turn of the 20th Century has been very helpful in my writing career. I also feel a calling to preserve American ways of speech (and ways of life!) that are long gone

  2. You made me pause in thought and I now see how astute your observation is. Even reading contemporary fiction by youthful authors I don’t see many (or any) phrases that make me take a note or remember them to share with friends. This unhappy trend is obvious in conversations with twenty-somethings as you observed. Conversations with my niece are brief, probably not even correctly defined as conversations. She wants to speak as if she were texting. Another author noted that learning to write a letter is no longer part of public school curriculum. E-mails aren’t coming close to being “letters” – they are so full of abbreviations and lack punctuation. I sigh. Then I move on to reading something wonderful by Bailey White and I know that the well is deep and I won’t run out of good reading material as long as the 40-somethings and older authors have their books on the shelves.

  3. Everytime one of my books is sent off to be translated into Greek I shudder at what sorts of idioms or colloquial expressions will be literally interpreted. For example: “The guy was a pain in the ass.” Translation: “The man had a window in the rear.” At least the translator got partial credit for seeking out a homonym in trying to come up with the meaning:)

  4. I’m not only cursed with age-dated phrases, throw in exclusively Kansas usage, and my own family’s quaint phrasing and there’s a big “huh?” gap. On the other hand some of my characters are defined by their “old” words.

    In my personal life, I’m getting better, but one swallow does not a summer make.

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