Erstwhile Parlance Of Yesteryear

Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine

Erstwhile Parlance of Yesteryear

By Jim Ignasher


What radio announcers used to say before an important message.

     I recently heard someone use the expression, “he sounds like a broken record”, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard that term in years. For those too young to remember, a broken record was one that would get stuck and continuously repeat a word or phrase. I wondered how many of those of the younger generation would understand its meaning, for how many of them have ever owned a “record player”? Then I began thinking about other expressions that have “gone out of fashion”, “caught the westbound”, or “went the way of the Edsel”.

     It’s interesting how the English language has evolved over the centuries. For example, in “days of yore”, there was the word “erstwhile”, meaning bygone, passé, or long ago. And in “Olde English”, the words “ye”, “doth”, and “puteth”, were in common usage.

     Somewhere along the way people began developing colorful euphemistic expressions and slang words to address everyday situations or behavior such as advising an irritated person not to “go off half-cocked”. Synonymous expressions might include “simmer down”, “cool your jets”, “don’t get your underwear in a bunch”, “don’t have a cow”, and “take a chill pill”.

     If that person didn’t heed the advice, they might be said to have “flipped their lid”, “flown off the handle”, “blown a gasket”, or “gone off the deep end”. Then they might find themselves in a legal “sticky wicket”, and “face the music” before a judge who could put them “on ice” in the “clink”.

     A haughty person might have to “come down off his high horse”. Some people engage in “horse trading”, which makes good “horse sense”, but one should never “look a gift horse in the mouth”. A person in a bar might “see a man about a horse”, and the saying that there “were more horse’s rear-ends on the road than horses” was once a popular lament.

     Some expressions fade into obscurity with the passing of time. For example, in the roaring twenties they said “twenty-three-skidoo”, drank “bathtub gin” and “hooch” in “speakeasies” while out for a “toot”, and “painting the town red”. “Flapper’s” wore risqué short dresses called “knee dusters”, and the “new fangled” Charleston (dance) was considered the “bee’s knees” among the younger crowd. Illicit booze was brought in by “rumrunners”, and organized crime “gangsters” “rubbed out” the competition with “street sweepers” and “Chicago pianos”, a.k.a. machine guns. Those on the receiving end were adorned with “pine overcoats” as they made their way to the “bone orchard”, or “cement shoes” if they wound up in “the drink”.

     Twenty years later World War II brought new color to our dialogue. There was “Fubar”, an acronym for “fouled up beyond all repair”, and “Snafu”, another acronym meaning “situation normal, all fouled up”.

     Getting “flack” from someone referred to disrespect, and the expression came from WWII bomber pilots who had to fly through anti-aircraft fire, (flack), while bombing the enemy.

     When things were going well people were said to be “cooking with gas”, “living the high life”, “pleased as punch”, or “living the life of Riley”.

     If one was “flush” with “clams”, “lettuce”, or “dough”, it meant they had money, and could “have it made in the shade”, and be “living on easy street”. Those without money could be “poor as a church mouse”.

     The 1950s had “hep-cats” and “kittens”, “beatniks” and “greasers”, who “burned rubber” in “souped up” “hot rods” that either had “three-in-the-tree”, or “four-on-the-floor” shifters.

     In the 1960s nobody would have known what a “flat screen” was, for they had “boob tubes”, “idiot boxes”, and “rabbit ears”, and everyone knew what “don’t touch that dial” meant.

     We “mind our P’s and Qs”, “roll with the punches”, and “take it all in stride”. Sometimes we “pull out all the stops” and throw in “everything but the kitchen sink” to get something done “in the nick of time” instead of “beating around the bush”. We hear things “through the grapevine”, “a little birdie”, and even “straight from the horse’s mouth”. We might “get on a soapbox”, “stand in the limelight”, or tell someone to “put a sock in it”. At the end of the day we “hit the hay”, “jump in the rack”, and “sleep tight”.

     There are literally thousands of the slang words and expressions, and newer, “cooler”, “hipper”, “groovier”, “far out”, “dope”, “sweet” ,“sick”, “g.o.a.t” (greatest of all time), ones are being invented every day.

     “Can you dig it?”

     “Right on!”

     “See you later alligator” was once answered with “after awhile crocodile”, but these were replaced with “I’m off”, “catch you on the flip side”, “later days”, “take it easy”, and “smell you later”.

     Broken records aside, it seems some expressions will always have “staying power”.

     “Elvis has left the building. Thank you, and goodnight!”





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