Tricks of the tongue

A few days ago, someone I know told me he had been "put in a trick bag." He meant to say that inconsiderate behavior on the part of one of our mutual acquaintances had placed him in an awkward situation. I had never heard the expression before, but I understood perfectly what he was saying. It was a case of an idiomatic phrase whose time had come.

Since then I've heard the term "trick bag" perhaps half a dozen times, and used it myself once or twice. Even as I write this essay, the euphemism is sweeping my area like wildfire, and probably yours too. One of two things might happen to "trick bag": it could become part of the language, or (and this is more probable) it could burn itself out and never be heard again.

Sometimes a colloquialism will submerge for a long period of time, perhaps even decades, and then emerge with electrical swiftness. Several years ago my son in grade school used the term "rip-off" to let me know that his room had been burglarized by his sister. I thought that was quaint, for the term had a certain vogue in the late 1940s, though with a slightly different shade of meaning. I was sure I would never hear it again, but "rip-off" has stayed with us. I've heard the term from hundreds of people from all walks of life and all stations, including such public figures as Vice-President Walter Mondale and Senator Barry Goldwater.

If you have a habit of using faded expressions, you run a risk of failing to convey your exact meaning. In 1955, when I was a rookie soldier in the Philippines, no one misunderstood if you told them to "make it." This was understood by everybody on the island, including the cats and dogs, and probably enjoyed currency in other parts of the American English-speaking world as well. This is no longer the case. The other day, a mere 25 years later, I told a young man to "make it" who had been "chewing on my leg." Bending my ear. Pestering me. That lad gazed at me with about as much fine comprehension as one might expect from a rutabaga. "Make it" sailed right over his head, and I realized that a little fragment of slang had died a peaceful death. The young man went away when I gave him the soda pop he came to mooch.

Slang gives a hue to the years and decades. If you know something of its history. To be "sold down the river" in 1850 meant America was to be betrayed: and of course it was no mere figure of speech for many hundreds of our citizens in those waning years of slavery.

"Well all rootie!" is the way our grandsires signified that things were going along pretty well. "23 skiddoo!" is hepcatese for "I think I'll just split right on outta here!" A "jive turkey" is not, as one might logically think, a Thanksgiving bird with a sense of rhythm.It is a person who is not "cool."

If we sit quietly, and open the valves of our memory, we might overhear shards of dialogue that come to us from many directions and many decades.

1948: "Who's the slick chick I saw you beboppin' with?"

1980: "Like, who's that stone fox you be groovin' with at the disco?

English: "Who was that singularly attractive young lady with whom I saw you dancing at the Emporium?"

1956: "Me and you gonna rumble, cat."

1980: "We gonna have to get on down, dude."

English: "Sir, you and I are confronted with the possibility of an altercation."

1932: "I put soup in the flivver and vamoosed."

1980: "I juiced up the wheels and split."

English: "I put gasoline in my automobile and departed."

. . . And so we move through the years of our life "rapping," or "chewing the fat," or "relating," or what-have-you. We don't worry too much about the labels: it is the act of communicatingm that is of the utmost importance. We are most gifted, and most completely human,m when we engage in the act of relating with one another.

And of course it's the best way to avoid being put in a trick bag.

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