Singing That Old Slang Line

It was a small festive dinner, and I was rattling on about a great old comic novel, "The Towers of Trebizond," in which a young British woman in Turkey is left with no funds and a camel to take care of. I laughed and said she tries to make a little pin money by selling rides on the camel. A thirtysomething at the table cut the comedy and asked, "What is pin money?"

You could have heard a pin drop. At least among my generation, or those who had not been knocked off their pins. I was on pins and needles myself until someone recalled another thirtysomething, who asked what her father meant by "asleep at the switch."

We antediluvians of slang are torn between admiration for such frank questions (wouldn't we have just sat mum and puzzled?) and alarm over a looming communication gap. What happens when nothing that everybody once knew can be taken for granted anymore?

I'm talking daily conversation here, not echoing academic laments about young people who love Beethoven's "Moonlighting Sonata" or try to look up Angkor Wat in "Who's Who."

THE "pin money" inquirer drew a slightly different definition from each of us, which is often the way with what everybody knows. He heard pocket money, small change, cash for incidentals, etc., but not completely what the outdated dictionary says: the money a man allots to his wife, sister, or daughter for personal expenses (such as pins).

Later I tried to see just how bad things were, what other commonplaces the generations didn't have in common.

"Let's sit down and chew the rag," I said. Whew, good thing he didn't take it literally. He knew "shoot the breeze" as a golden-oldie metaphor, too.

But "pounding her ear"? No. Must sound awful if it doesn't mean sleeping.

And "settling his hash"? No. Not digestion but aggression.

"In the chips"? No. Probably did him credit not to link poker and prosperity. (I didn't try "chip off the old block," which used to get a laugh from our offspring.)

"Come a cropper"? No. A British way of falling that made it across the Atlantic without his noticing.

"Come on like gangbusters"? He had the idea, but didn't know it went back to a radio show called "Gangbusters," which came on the air with police sirens and machine guns.

"Off the cuff"? Yes. Meaning informal, extemporaneous. "On the cuff"? No. From the tradition of writing an amount owed on the creditor's cuff.

"Gate-crasher"? Yes. Meaning uninvited guest. "Give someone the gate"? No. To jilt or fire someone.

Naturally, this thirtysomething didn't know "T.L." or "trade-last," just as I didn't either until my mother went beyond smiles and finally explained it. I see a writer of her generation, F. Scott Fitzgerald, used it in his fiction. It means a compliment you offer to pass along in return for a compliment about yourself.

And my young friend had missed another from my parents' day, "not on your tintype." The way they said it, I knew it meant "No!," though they never told me how it derived from a photograph made on a metal plate.

Riding "shanks' mare" was also a mystery to him and, for a long time, to me. These legs were made for walking, young feller.

If I foolishly babbled on, he would know that I was "full of beans," but not that I was "talking through my hat."

If I "went south" with something, he wouldn't know I was stealing it. But if it didn't amount to much, he would know it was "small potatoes."

He wouldn't know that I was throwing the fight by going "in the tank." But he'd know I was giving up if I "threw in the towel."

Both of us knew "pass the buck" means to shift responsibility, and "the buck stops here," as Harry Truman said, means to accept it. But we did not know the origins in poker where a player's obligation to deal used to be shown by placing a buckhorn knife or other marker in front of him.

SOME entrenched entries in the slang dictionary have been displaced by meanings instantly recognized by a thirtysomething:

"Anchor man" now holds down the TV news instead of getting the lowest grades in class or defending a team's goal line.

"Boomer" now is a member of the baby-boom generation instead of a migratory worker or a ladies' man.

"Deadhead" now is a follower of the Grateful Dead instead of a stupid person, a nonpaying customer, or a truck traveling empty on a return trip.

"Main squeeze" is now a sweetheart instead of merely an important person, gang leader, or card dealer.

To be fair to the thirtysomething, he identified a lot more phrases than I've found room for here. Like his contemporary, he didn't know "asleep at the switch," meaning unwary or neglecting a duty, like a dozing railroad switchman. But they both came back with "asleep at the wheel," which happens to be the name of a rock group.

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