I was driving a friend of mine and his teen-age kids to the airport last week, and I happened to mention how much I liked this relatively new show on CBS called The Mentalist. “The lead is a guy who solves cases because he’s very observant. If you liked Columbo, you’d love this show.”
My friend looked at me with a sad expression. “They don’t know who Columbo is,” he said. To me, this is like not knowing who Richard Nixon is.
Not long after that, I was reading a story in which the writer used the term “ruh-ro.” At first, I wondered if it was a really strange typo, since it was set off by itself.
But then it hit me. “Ruh-ro” comes from George Jetson’s dog Astro, who pronounced everything as if it began with an R. He called his master “Rorge.” Thus, “ruh-ro” was the way Astro pronounced “uh-oh.” Given that The Jetsons debuted in 1963, the writer was really showing her age.
Are these references truly anachronisms, identifying the speaker as a geezer stuck in another time? Or are they part of our culture? In its June issue, the AARP Bulletin (registration required) published a list of 50 phrases that we still use whose origins have been made obsolete by progress. These include:
- Sounds like a broken record
- Came in over the transom
- Drop a dime
- Full steam ahead
- Catch you on the flip side
I asked my Facebook friends — many of whom are my vintage — what anachronisms they’d recently found themselves using, and I got some interesting answers (thanks to all those who sent suggestions).
One classmate said that she’d recently had to explain My Mother, The Car. This didn’t surprise me. It needed to be explained when it debuted in 1965, and so few people got the joke, it was cancelled a year later. With the recent release of Kool-Aid Fun Fizz, she also had to explain what Fizzies were; to me they looked like Alka-Seltzer but tasted worse.
Another classmate said she’d used the term “Kemo sabe” recently. Frankly, it’s not all bad if people forget The Lone Ranger. We could even now be bringing up a generation that isn’t compelled to yell “hi-yo, silver” after they hear the William Tell Overture.
One friend told me that her pre-teen kids, inexplicably, would recognize “ruh-roh” but recently had to be told who Ringo Starr was. This brings up one of my favorite culturally out-of-step punch lines: “You mean Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Today more youngsters would associate the name McCartney with designer Stella rather than her father. (Another father-daughter celebrity joke: After years of being known only as Henry Fonda’s daughter, Jane Fonda was reportedly quite pleased to hear about the little boy who ran up to her father and asked, “Are you really Jane Fonda’s Dad?”)
My sense is that this is the way of the cultural world. Each generation picks and chooses not only its own cultural touchstones, but the ones it chooses to pull along from previous generations. Some things get left behind. This is why people are still saying “smarter than the average bear” (Yogi Bear) but have generally stopped saying “exit, stage left” (Snagglepuss). It’s why we still revere ’57 Chevys but not ’59 Pontiacs. It’s why they can still get a laugh with “candygram” (Saturday Night Live) even though Western Union is but a shell of its former self.
Personally, I’d love to keep dragging all these cultural touchstones along with me as I age, but damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not an anthropologist.