Thursday, July 2, 2009

Review: I Love It When You Talk Retro

Do you know what a Venn diagram is? It's the kind of diagram with two or more circles, showing overlap between different groups. If you were to draw one with pop culture history books (like Don't Know Much About History) in one circle and pop culture books about language (something along the lines of The Mother Tongue) in the other, right smack in the middle of the diagram would be I Love It When You Talk Retro by Ralph Keyes.

In this well-researched,well written book, Keyes examines (mostly) common phrases and words with (sometimes) forgotten origins. According to Keyes, retroterms are "verbal artifacts that hang around in our national conversation long after the topic they refer to has galloped into the sunset... To qualify as a retroterm, a word or phrase must be in current use it yet have an origin that isn't current."

I would argue that many of the words he writes about aren't as mysterious as he makes them out to be - most anyone who took a college lit class is going to know who Lolita is and what that term refers to. But early on in the book, Keyes makes the point that just because a term is familiar to one reader, another may have no idea what it means. For his example, he tells the story of George W. Bush's White House press secretary, Dana Perino, confessing that she didn't really know what the Cuban missile crisis referred to. Once I got over my shock that such a presumably well-educated woman wouldn't know her American political history very well, I took Keyes point, and tried to go with it, so to speak. (Still, I wish Keyes had included an explanation somewhere along the line of how he chose what words to include. I also speculated whether he is holding some back for a sequel.)

For each word or phrase, the author shares the term's meaning, its origin, and an example of its use. One of the more delightful things about reading this book now, is how recent many of these examples were. The 2008 Democratic primary of Clinton v. Obama is referenced several times, as are recent books and articles. While it does make me curious about how well this book will age, it serves to make I Love It When You Talk Retro an excellent read for this day and age.

While I read this book (which I checked out of my local library - the cover really grabbed me) cover to cover, I think most readers would prefer it as a browsing kind of book. Based on the number of times I found my husband reading it in 5-minute snatches, I think he would agree. The kind of history readers who prefer 900-page volumes on intricate scholarship will probably find this book too elementary, but more casual American history fans, and those with an interest in language, will get a real kick out of I Love It When You Talk Retro.

Buy I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech on Amazon.

Here's a good interview with Ralph Keyes at Jacket Copy.

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