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)?
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.
Today's Gen-whatevers may not know what Mrs. Robinson was up to, how big a breadbox is, or why going postal refers to murder and mayhem. Younger inquiring minds want to know: Where did all those 98-pound weaklings come from, the ones who get sand kicked in their face? What exactly did Colin Powell have in mind when he described Condoleezza Rice as being "in full Nurse Ratched mode"? And who is this Cher Noble newscasters keep referring to when they discuss nuclear power plant disasters?
Amusing as they are, such failures to communicate have a more serious element. Journalists, teachers, and anyone else who needs to address many generations risk drawing blank looks when relying on dated allusions. In the process, they send a subliminal message to younger cohorts. This is a private conversation, OK? Haven't you got some Twittering to do?
Many retrotalkers almost seem to revel in the sense of generational solidarity they create by repeatedly using retroterms. What other conclusion can younger viewers draw when they watch middle-aged TV talkers refer to Annie Oakley, Hercule Poirot, Judge Crater, Captain Queeg, Jubilation T. Cornpone, Emily Post, Apollo Creed, Rain Man, Howard Beale, and 18-½-minute tape gaps – as they have in just the few hours of televised news commentary that I've watched recently? Do those born since 1975 get the allusion when Fox News's Chris Wallace says about attempts to revive the economy, "To paraphrase the movie Jaws, are we gonna need a bigger boat?" or when an NPR newscaster portrays a Somalian pirate standoff as "a high seas Dog Day Afternoon"?
Of course younger cohorts have no shortage of terms that confound older ears.
Older folks often complain that they can't make head or tail out of what younger folks are talking about with all those slangy new words. Well, duh. That's just the point. Kids everywhere shoot slang at their elders and always have. Throwing in some hip-hop references along with a few online acronyms can really get a rise out of their parents, who then may retaliate with retrotalk.
"OMG, Mom, it made me LOL when you talked about a blue plate special."
"Well don't get your knickers in a twist, young lady."
So it goes when generations collide verbally. Language can be a potent weapon in the generational wars. The resulting farrago of retroterms, cyberterms, slang, and references to pop culture is a modern-day Babel. Time will determine which elements make the linguistic cut. Something worth bearing in mind is this: Today's hip allusion is tomorrow's dated retroterm.
Ralph Keyes is the author of "I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech," which has just been published.