With English, some phrases go out the window


By Sue Curtis



Many of you know of my fascination with the American English language. Recently, I was asked if we still had a “landline.” Of course, we do, but I was informed that this was quite outdated and in a matter of years the idea of a “landline” would go the way of the old “party line.” Nowadays, we have Skype, group messaging, and conference calls, which are all derived from the party line, but are more sophisticated.

About the same time it was pointed out to me that I’m old — or at least my phone is — I was trying to text someone about our new windows. The autocorrect feature on my “smart” phone kept changing the word to “Windows.” Clearly, the computer program known as “Windows” is more commonly used than the items in our homes that allow us to see the weather. I suspect that’s because the folks who make the phone use Windows to tell them the weather, rather than looking through an actual window to figure it out.

This led me to investigate the things we say that relate to archaic practices, but that are still used with universal meaning. Take the phrase, “close, but no cigar.” Even young computer whizzes know that this means something didn’t quite make the mark. The phrase actually started more than a century ago, when the winning prize at a carnival game was a cigar. When a patron missed the mark, the game operator would say, “Close, but no cigar!”

Any age college student will tell you that “burning the midnight oil,” means to stay up late studying. Not a one of them, however, actually burned oil in a lamp or candle, unless there was a power outage. Even then, they’d likely use the flashlight on their phone.

Kids today are sometimes told to “get off your high horse.” They know that means to act with a little more humility. They probably have no idea it’s because before the automobile, owning a horse was a sign of prominence and high rank.

Thanks to Alice in Wonderland, young ones probably believe that “as mad as a hatter” refers to the character Lewis Carroll crafted. But actually, in the 17th centuries, hat-makers (hatters) often had cognitive issues or even went mad as a result of mercury poisoning, a side effect of making felt hats.

There are many phrases we use today that may become obsolete in our lifetime. I’m sure that “roll the window up” is a thing that only classic car owners will understand. Likewise the command “hang up that phone” will fall by the wayside, as will the term “dial tone.”

“Hashtag” has already replaced “pound sign” in our lexicon. The next generations will not ever say “adjust the TV antenna” or “what’s on the B-side?”

Our language may lose some of the old phrases, but will expand to include things such as “buzz kill,” “PM me,” and “you go.” For me, these types of phrases just don’t paint the same kind of picture. Email me at suecurtis9@gmail.com.

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By Sue Curtis

Sue is a retired public servant who volunteers at the Hospice store (For All Seasons) in Troy and teaches part-time at Urbana University. She keeps busy taking care of husband, house, and pets. She and her husband have an adult son who lives in Troy.

Sue is a retired public servant who volunteers at the Hospice store (For All Seasons) in Troy and teaches part-time at Urbana University. She keeps busy taking care of husband, house, and pets. She and her husband have an adult son who lives in Troy.