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Some Terms That Have Outlived Their Roots but Not Their Usefulness

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: our guest is author Ralph Keyes (kize). His newest book about language has a mouthful of a title.

RS: It's called "I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech."

AA: "'Double whammy' and 'drop a dime.' Let's start with double whammy. What does that mean exactly?"

RALPH KEYES: "Well, this goes back to the old comic strip 'Li'l Abner' which put an amazing number of retro terms into our conversation. And Evil Eye Fleegle was a notorious hoodlum from Brooklyn in 'Li'l Abner,' and Evil Eye Fleegle would point one finger at someone that he wanted to demolish and cast his evil eye on that person and lay them low.

"Now, when Evil Eye Fleegle decided to put both of his eyes on a person or object and point two fingers, this could stop a rushing locomotive or topple a skyscraper. And this was a double whammy. And the only person who could withstand not just a single whammy but a double whammy was Mammy Yokum, Li'l Abner Yokum's wizened old mother who smoked a corncob pipe. And she would whirl and spin and totter around, but she was still standing when Evil Eye Fleegle tried to lay her low with a double whammy."

RS: "So a double whammy today would mean?"

RALPH KEYES: "Anything where two things lay you low. Let's say somebody decides to run for office and it turns out they have a residency problem and they're not old enough. That's a double whammy.

RS: "Or you could have the flu and other medical complications -- "


RS: "at the same time. So you would be hit by a double whammy. What was the second ... "

AA: "It was drop a dime."

RS: "Uh-huh."

RALPH KEYES: "Drop a dime. Now this one is really problematic for kids who have grown up with cell phones because they don't recall, as you and I may, the glorious golden era of telephone booths. Making a call from a public telephone in a phone booth usually cost a dime. And so when we wanted to squeal on someone, to be a whistleblower and call the cops from a phone that couldn't be traced or where people couldn't see us, we would go into a phone booth, put a dime in and call the police. This is called dropping a dime."

RS: "Is it something that is still in use today?"

RALPH KEYES: "Well, the phrase is. We still talk about dropping a dime, to say that we're reporting someone, and then we become a dime dropper. But gosh, how many public phones are there out there anymore?"

RS: "Not many."

AA: "And they certainly cost more than a dime now. I think they're like fifty cents."

RALPH KEYES: "That's for sure."

AA: "You use the term in here, you talk about some all-American terms and one of them is 'Ozzie and Harriet.'"


AA: "Why don't you explain to people who maybe aren't familiar with old American television."

RALPH KEYES: "Well, this is a show from the fifties where Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Nelson ran what was considered to be the ideal American family in 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.'"

AA: "And they were real people, weren't they?"

RALPH KEYES: "Yeah, they were actually married to each other."

AA: "Right. And then they were also actors. But it wasn't like what we would today call -- "

RS: "And their kids were part of the ... they were a real American family."


TV ANNOUNCER: "And now, Hotpoint presents America's favorite family comedy, 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet' starring the entire Nelson family."

OZZIE: "Where's Rick?"

DAVID: "Well, he was with me a minute ago."

OZZIE: "Ricky?

RICKY NELSON: "I'm coming."

OZZIE: "Come on, breakfast is just about ready."

AA: "Today we'd say it would be like a reality show, but it wasn't a reality show."

RS: "No, it was all scripted."

AA: "It was scripted."

RALPH KEYES: "And in fact it was a fantasy show because people thought 'Oh, Ozzie and Harriet, that's the way a family ought to be.' And they still talk about that. You know, an 'Ozzie and Harriet' type of family where everything goes smoothly and the dad wears a cardigan sweater and the mom has an apron on and she's always bustling through the kitchen door with a nice plate of warm brownies."

AA: Stay tuned next week for more of our conversation with Ralph Keyes, author of the new book "I Love It When You Talk Retro."

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. To learn more about American English, go to With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.