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Opinion

Do you know who Captain Queeg, Howard Beale, and Chauncey Gardner are?

Today's TV talkers seem addicted to making cultural references that mean nothing to younger audiences.

By Ralph Keyes / May 26, 2009



Yellow Springs, Ohio

We've heard a lot lately about "Harry and Louise." Nearly any well-informed news consumer of a certain age knows who they are: the fretful couple in a 1993 ad who helped scuttle Hillary Clinton's health initiative. But what about those who were in grade school then, or who lived in another country? Are they likely to get the further thought by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse that when it comes to healthcare, we've gone beyond a "Harry and Louise moment" into a "Thelma and Louise moment" (referring to the 1991 movie whose protagonists drove themselves off a cliff)?

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Think of this as "retrotalk": continued allusions to past phenomena. That could be a person, product, past bestseller, old ad, antique radio show, comic strip, movie, or sitcom character.

When a Newsweek writer says actress-singer Kristin Chenoweth resembles a kewpie doll, has a Billie Burke voice and goody-two-shoes past, those not around a few decades ago might be mystified by these allusions to a onetime carnival prize, an actress who died 40 years ago, and the 1765 novel "The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes."

In the same magazine another writer recently observed that disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer continues to seek attention "in an 'other than that Mrs. Lincoln' way," referencing the old gag based on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?"

Retroterms like these are verbal fossils that hang around long after whatever they refer to has galloped into the sunset. Retrotalk puts a spotlight on generational divides, puts them in the limelight, if you will, as when "New Yorker" writer Jon Lee Anderson called Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "Chauncey Gardnerish," referring to Peter Sellers's simple-minded character in the 1979 movie "Being There," or when "Atlantic" blogger Andrew Sullivan referred to "Obama's rope-a-dope ways," alluding to a crafty tactic used by boxer Muhammad Ali when defeating George Foreman in 1974.

To younger cohorts, retroterms such as these might as well come from Serbo-Croatian. "You sound like a broken record" doesn't make much sense to a generation that grew up with iPod buds in their ears. "Stuck in a groove" and "flip side" could also be puzzling.

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