When Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich used the word "slacks" in a recent column, a reader commented: "Slacks? How old are you?"
"I was describing a young man, a college guy," Schmich tells NPR's Neal Conan. "I was trying to point out that he wasn't wearing jeans, that he wasn't sloppy, that he wasn't inordinately well-dressed for a guy in college," she says. "And so I used the word 'slacks.' "
But the reader's comment got Schmich thinking about the words we choose and how much those choices can reveal about our age. "I got a couple of hundred emails on this," she says, from readers who had found themselves similarly critiqued. For example, one woman wrote that her daughter mocked her for using the word "blouse," saying no one uses that word anymore — it's a "top."
Sometimes, says Schmich, she knows a word she's using has fallen out of fashion and chooses it deliberately, for irony. "I say 'groovy,' and I'm saying it with a wink, but [the readers] don't know I'm saying it with a wink."
There's one standout adjective, however, that Schmich says has stood the test of time. " 'Cool' is really the only word," she says, "that has endured through generations."
Tell us: What's the word you use that dates you?
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Cathy, a fifth-grade teacher in Stryker, Ohio, wrote to tell us that she elicited giggles when she complemented a student's footwear and called them thongs. A self-described ex-hippie named Paul emailed that he catches himself using the phrase, that's heavy. Sooner or later, once common words or phrases take on new meanings or just seem way, way out of date. Call and tell us about the term you've used that dates you. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We've swiped this idea from Mary Schmich, the columnist for the Chicago Tribune who joins us now. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION today.
MARY SCHMICH: You mean they're not thongs?
CONAN: I think flip-flops is where we want to go now.
SCHMICH: I said flip-flops growing up. See, I thought flip-flops was old. I've started - ever since I wrote this column about using words that date me, I have started questioning absolutely everything I say, Neal.
CONAN: And in that piece you wrote earlier this month, you said, the word that dated you was slacks.
SCHMICH: Yes, this is one I became aware that my vocabulary was making me look old. I use the word slacks in a column that I wrote. I was describing a young man, a college guy. I was trying to point out that he wasn't wearing jeans, that he wasn't sloppy, that he wasn't inordinately well-dressed for a guy in college. And so I used the word slacks. So, you know, out there in the cesspool of the comment boards, somebody wrote, slacks? How old are you?
SCHMICH: And I thought, wait, is that a problem? And then I mention that to some younger columns - colleagues and they told me, indeed. Indeed dates me too. Indeed, it was a problem.
CONAN: What is the correct terminology then for non-jeans?
SCHMICH: I still don't know, Neal. Pants, maybe?
CONAN: Pants, I guess. But that would - well, anyway, I don't know. Khakis might date you too.
SCHMICH: And then I've learned - I got a couple of hundred emails on this, because everybody have a certain age of the story. And a woman wrote me to tell me that her daughter mocked her for using the word blouse. And it's not a blouse anymore, mom, it's a top.
CONAN: It's a top. OK, well, all right. So as you've gone on in this discovery, we've asked some people to email us, and there are different kinds of words. Here's Karen in Des Moines - oh, excuse me - West Des Moines, who writes us with the word, bubbler, the word for water fountain. They actually did bubble up from center hole. I grew up in Madison-Wisconsin area, and there were public bubblers on streets in the Metro area. I'm in the mid-60s in age and I've always thought a bubble was a regionalism for Massachusetts.
SCHMICH: I had never even heard that term.
CONAN: Well, I guess there are terminologies that even escape those of you in Chicago.
SCHMICH: I learned some terms from readers that I had never heard. Like, one guy wrote me to tell me that his dad used to use the word doggy(ph) all the time, and he would say that car is really doggy, and that he didn't know for decades that doggy meant cool.
CONAN: I thought calling something a dog was equivalent to saying it was uncool.
SCHMICH: Well, now it is, but his dad was born, I think he said in 1896. And so doggy, apparently, circa 1920, meant cool.
CONAN: That moved right on to the cat's pajamas I suppose?
SCHMICH: Right. And bee's knees.
CONAN: OK. Well, 23 skidoo. Here's an email we have from Ed in Portland, Oregon: Recently I asked for a church key to open a bottle of beer. A 25-year-old son had no idea what I wanted.
SCHMICH: And then this raises the question of words that connote functions that no longer exist. Does a phone still ring?
CONAN: Do you still dial it?
CONAN: And then there's the eternal conundrum, what do you call an audio recording of music, a record album?
SCHMICH: That's a really good question. I still say - I've started to say recording just to kind of cover all bases, but I really don't know what the preferred term is.
CONAN: I also recognized when I was thinking about this, album, that idea goes back to an album of 78s. I mean, it's...
CONAN: That's pretty retro.
SCHMICH: Right, right.
CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on this conversation: 800-989-8255. Mary Schmich is our guest, the columnist for the Chicago Tribune. What's the word you've used? Tell us about the time you've been identified or outed by a word as a geezer. Let's see if we can go to Sue. And Sue is on the line with us from Nashville.
SUE: Hi. My word is icebox. I actually had seen my grandmother's icebox when I was growing up, and we still have the ice pick that she used in her icebox. But I get the biggest, biggest blank stare. You know, nobody knows what I mean. The other one that I find myself using that nobody knows is Tinkers to Evers to Chance.
SUE: And Rube Goldberg, you know, that same kind of thing. Nobody knows who Rube Goldberg is anymore.
CONAN: Rube Goldberg, of course, the crackpot inventor. He didn't invent real things, but fanciful inventions in the comic pages.
CONAN: And Tinkers to - Tinker to Evers to Chance, the great double play combination of the Chicago Cubs circa, what, 1909?
SUE: 1907, just before they won their last World Series. And we're still waiting for the next one.
CONAN: I believe that that's a great poem or a piece of doggerel that was printed in the newspaper that used the phrase gonfalon bubble. And if you know what that means, get back to us.
SUE: Yeah. You got me there.
CONAN: All right.
SUE: Great conversation.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
SUE: All right. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Icebox, my mother used the terminology icebox. And I was able to figure out cold - the cold box refrigerator is what she meant.
SCHMICH: Now, one category of words that get dated really quickly are adjectives to describe cool things. Cool is really the only word, I think, that has endured through generations. But the word marvelous really dates you.
CONAN: Marvelous. Yeah.
SCHMICH: If you say something's marvelous. It's very George Gershwin and Cole Porter, right? Or grand - that's grand. And insult. Somebody reminded me of a term that was in vogue when I was growing up. Probably you too, Neal.
SCHMICH: Rat fink.
CONAN: Rat fink, yes.
SCHMICH: (Unintelligible) a rat fink.
SCHMICH: The ultimate diss.
CONAN: I spent some time overseas at the London bureau for NPR back in the mid-'80s. And you could sort of - this cultural gap of like four years, which I was clueless and I came back and people started telling me, you look marvelous. And I totally missed the Billy Crystal era on "Saturday Night Live."
SCHMICH: You didn't get the joke, right? Right, right.
CONAN: It was just - yeah. So you can end up with these little gaps in your terminology as well. This from John in California: Antiquated words in my vocabulary - phonograph, hi-fi, keypunch, and the one that gets folks most often, Sears and Roebuck. Younger folks are surprised to find that the mammoth retailer used to sell popcorn candy and nuts and had a restaurant, much like the traditional department stores used to do.
SCHMICH: Hmm. RPM is another one, speaking of records. You know, I'll still say to somebody, you know, moved at a certain RPM and nobody says that anymore.
CONAN: Let's go to Steve. Steve is on the line with us from San Francisco.
STEVE: Yeah. I say cat, like that cat is cool and...
CONAN: Oh, in the beatnik sense of the term.
SCHMICH: And how old are you?
STEVE: I'm actually 47 so...
SCHMICH: That's not, you know, you're too young for that.
STEVE: I know. I just - I started using it, and I don't know why because I remember hearing about it. Maybe(ph) it just came back to me, you know, from my past. I'm like just hearing it, and I used that word just the other day and someone stared at me like I was from another planet. You know, what are you talking about?
SCHMICH: Do you do it with an ironic twist? Because some of these old words I use, what I imagine is, ironically, that the listener doesn't always discern that. I say groovy and I'm saying it with a wink, but they don't know I'm saying it with a wink.
STEVE: No. I don't think so. I mean, it's - I usually reserve it for some - for like entertainers or someone who's really, really cool. And I guess I'm not using it as much because a lot of people are staring at me like...
SCHMICH: What are you saying?
CONAN: So when you use cat, they think you're square?
STEVE: Yes. Exactly.
STEVE: But I don't think they would understand that either.
CONAN: No. Perhaps not.
SCHMICH: That brings up another point. I use the word hip in my column, and as someone pointed out to me, if you use the word hip, you're not.
SCHMICH: Hipsters do not use the word hip.
CONAN: Or even worse, the word hep?
SCHMICH: Oh, yeah, that's way old.
CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.
STEVE: Alright, well, thank you.
CONAN: Here's Andrew writing to us on email from West Valley City in Utah: A few days ago I saw a man at the store go to three employees to ask where their billfolds were. Not one of them knew what he was talking about.
SCHMICH: Ah, interesting. It's like pocketbook.
CONAN: Yeah. But pocketbook is still in use.
SCHMICH: People tell me it's not.
CONAN: Really. What is it?
SCHMICH: Your purse, your bag.
CONAN: Purse. OK. Yeah. In that sense, when did that compartment next to the passenger's side of the car, when did that go from being the glove compartment to being the glove box?
SCHMICH: It's not the glove compartment?
CONAN: No. I think it's the glove box now.
CONAN: Anyway, Robert emails: My college friends used to say something was dope if it was cool back in the late '80s. So I guess that's - there's nothing that goes out of fashion more quickly, as you say, than words like that. Phat, P-H-A-T, I'm not sure is cool anymore either.
SCHMICH: You know, that's - no, it's not cool. And I remember probably 20 years ago when I figured out what P-H-A-T meant, and it was over then. I figured anytime - when I figure out what the new lingo is, it's about out.
CONAN: Here's an email from Sarah: I'm a high school teacher, and I use the term old hat to mean you guys have this down. My students have been making fun of me ever since. My mom used that term all the time and I guess I picked it up. I'm 32 but have since asked my peers and they also agree that it dates me.
CONAN: And there's a tweet. The Twitter user, Cubfan56(ph) sent this one: Steam shovel for a piece earthmoving equipment got me. A steam shovel, well, I remember the great children's book about the steam shovel.
SCHMICH: So steam shovels don't exist anymore?
CONAN: Well, they're not - they don't use steam anymore.
SCHMICH: It never occurred to me that they did use steam. You know, some of these words, you don't even think through their origins. You think about their function, but not their origins.
CONAN: We're talking with Mary Schmich, the columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Her piece "On the Tip of Our Tongues: Words Can Date You and So Can Snacks" ran earlier in that newspaper this month. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I have to ask you about the other part of that: Snacks can date you too?
SCHMICH: Oh, God, yes. This is how this whole thing started, was a colleague saw me eating M&Ms and said, M&Ms? Nobody eats M&Ms anymore, and then this launched us on a long thing about old candies.
CONAN: Old - there are old - well, I mean some of them they don't make anymore.
SCHMICH: Right. Right. Right. But M&Ms - I mean many people write to defend M&Ms to me.
CONAN: Well, the hipness or perhaps hepness of M&Ms.
SCHMICH: Right. Somebody pointed out, M&Ms are classic, meaning that they're old but they're still in style.
CONAN: I see, classic. That's...
CONAN: ...that's another damning with faint praise.
CONAN: Anyway, let's see if can go to - who is this?
CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air.
POWELL: All right. Well, I have two words that I use that kind of date me. One is contraption, which is kind of catch-all for smartphones, GPS, anything. You could use device, but it doesn't have the same derision that contraption has.
SCHMICH: I love contraption.
CONAN: Yeah. Gizmo, perhaps, has of the same meaning.
POWELL: Gizmo - although gizmo seems like it's kind of newer and neater than a contraption, which is something that's very frustrating, unnecessary - to me, anyway. That's the connotation to me. And the second word I use that always gets people snickering is trousers. I hate the word pants.
CONAN: Ah, we're back to slacks. Yeah. We're back to slacks here. Trousers is equally outdated, Mary Schmich.
SCHMICH: So is pants the word? Is pants the multi-purpose word? We can't say trousers. We can't say slacks.
POWELL: Yeah. It seems like pants. But you know, it reminds me of that joke in "A Confederacy of Dunces" when Ignatius Reilly works for Levy Pants and everyone says, He does? Levy Pants...
CONAN: Pants, right. OK.
CONAN: Moving right along, the hero all the way.
Thank you very much for the phone call. And this is an email from Andrea: Check it. My grandma is so wickedly cool that she texted the word humdinger to my mom this morning when describing a book. Humdinger.
SCHMICH: That's a great word. That's in a class with words like lollygag. I love the word lollygag. And believe me, if you say that in young company, the conversation ends.
CONAN: Nevertheless, lollygag is such a descriptive word that people know what you mean as soon as you say it.
SCHMICH: Right, right, right.
CONAN: Oh, let's see if we can go next to - this is Rock, and Rock's with us from Payson, Arizona.
ROCK: Yeah, yeah. One of our terms in Idaho when I was a teenager growing up there, and I don't know where it came from and that, but it's similar to your idea about the glove compartment, is jockey box.
CONAN: Again for a glove compartment.
CONAN: Jockey box.
ROCK: How it originated or why, I don't know, but everybody had a jockey box in 1960s.
SCHMICH: And that was a glove compartment?
ROCK: Yes, ma'am.
SCHMICH: And what did jockey signify?
ROCK: I have no idea. In those days you didn't have Jockey underwear. They weren't made. And you know, jockey's rode horses. But as to why, I do not know.
CONAN: Well, we'll have to leave that as one of those conundra we can't solve.
ROCK: There you go.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
ROCK: You bet.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Michael, and Michael's with us from Raleigh.
MICHAEL: Hey, guys. Thanks for taking my call.
MICHAEL: My mother teaches English at a community college in the western part of the state here in North Carolina. And one of the words that she used in her classes one day in reference to a student's weekend activities was that the student got high. However, that student merely drank alcohol and got drunk. They didn't actually get high in the way that I would know it to mean now. However...
CONAN: It used to be universal and now is more specific.
MICHAEL: Exactly. And very, very frequently she will send me via text or via email a portion of a student's paper, asking me what on Earth does this mean? And it really has shown me how much, you know, language has changed for her, being, you know, in the English world now, teaching it to the people who are, you know, 18 and up, as opposed to, you know, kind of seeing it at my age, at 27.
MICHAEL: And whenever she did, you know, use the word high in her class, the entire class was ruined.
MICHAEL: They were laughing and giggling about, you know, the student did this. Well, clearly they didn't. But it turned into this discussion that you all are having now. And it really was a fascinating discussion to have with her, what she says and what her students say and how very different those things actually can be, and...
CONAN: Here's another one from Matt in Cincinnati: My wife's 100-year-old grandma said she would get tight if she drank too many Martinis. And there's about 1,000 other metaphors for having one too many - three sheets to the wind and various others. But thanks very much for the call, Michael. We appreciate it. We have to leave with tinfoil, suggested by Cathy on email.
SCHMICH: That's good.
CONAN: And Denise writes, said by email: You mentioned purse a few minutes ago. I work in retail. It's now handbag these days, just for the record. So we can stand corrected on that. Mary Schmich, thanks very much for your time.
SCHMICH: I'll be using handbag from now on. Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: As we struggle to get into our pants. Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Thanks very much for your time. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.