The Detective’s Daughter — Lost Language

Kim in Baltimore enjoying the last days of summer.

“What’s black and white with a cherry on top?” This was my dad’s favorite joke. “A radio car,” he’d say before anyone could answer and he’d laugh as if it were the funniest thing he’d ever heard. A radio car.

A few nights ago two police officers came to have a talk with a man who lives down the street with his girlfriend. She’d been on the porch yelling at him right before they showed up.

“What’s going on?” my daughter asked.

“Not much, just a radio car stopped down the street,” I answered.

“A what?”

“A radio car,” I said again. She stared at me, a blank expression on her face. “A patrol car, you know, the police.”

This exchange left me wondering. Does anyone still say radio car? What other pre-historic phrases am I using that baffles my family and friends?

Have you noticed people seldom say telephone anymore? It’s either landline or cell. I’ve even had to describe to my kids about  phone booths.

I think back to my own childhood and the phrases my grandmother would use. When she said, “I’m going to lay across the bed,” that meant she was going to take a nap. And that was exactly what she would do, lay across her bed and not on the pillow or under the covers. I still say this, but it means I’ll be napping upstairs and not on the couch.

One of my favorites was the word “jackpot”. And no, it didn’t mean a big prize, in fact quite the opposite. If you were in the jackpot it meant you were in a great deal of trouble, not a winner.

For years we said things such as icebox and hanky because that’s what my grandparents said.

Why is it that some expressions hang on while others disappear? Is it because times change or is it that we move farther from our families these days and the old terms fade away with our distance from them?

My daughter is never going to use the term radio car, or say she’s in a jackpot, but hopefully some of my “old” sayings will be passed along for future generations to wonder over.

Readers: What phrases or words do you remember your parents using that are no longer in fashion?

45 Thoughts

  1. I love the richness of language, Kim. When I was a kid, going to “the show” meant going to the movies. And of course the ice box. These days I’ll bet kids don’t know what a phone book is, either. And nobody has the pleasure of hanging up a phone!

  2. Ringer. Few people remember that washers used to have ringers attached for squeezing the water out of clothes. So it someone “had been through the ringer” they were figuratively squeezed dry.

  3. I hope I’m never in so much jackpot that a radio car comes after me….My grandmother always said “Catch that for me” if she wanted a pot or plate on a high shelf. She’d also say “come see” to mean, come over here. Lots of little quirks. Fun blog, Kim! Thanks for making me think of my grandmother.

  4. There are “old” phrases we still hear often which must not make sense to the kids. Like ” a broken record” or even “wind your watch.” Thanks, Sherry, for asking this “sixty-four dollar question!”

    1. I do say the “broken record” one often. I think my kids believe I am talking about how people break world records. They might understand better now that vinyl records have made a come back.

  5. Interesting topic! When I was young I often picked up phrases from books I was reading, and if those were 19th-century books, when I used the phrases kids kind of looked at me funny. (One of my long-time favorites is “in a tearing hurry” which Laurie used in Little Women.) Edith, you’re so right about “hanging up the phone”–pushing a button on your cell phone doesn’t have the same impact.

  6. Remember when we bought 45’s of our favorite rock singers ? We “spun” records to listen to music? Things are also very regional too…Which is how I found this sight. “Wicked” is a New England thing. Particularly Eastern Massachusetts where I am originally from, NH and Maine. Soda in New England is different from soda in PA. And try to explain a Moxie float to someone in PA! Thanks to Market Basket, I still have found Chelmsford Ginger Ale when I am there…

  7. I’m not sure anyone ever used a phrase my dad did. I don’t know where he picked it up, but he had a funny sense of humor. If one of asked him, “Guess what?” his response was always “Dead horse in the bathtub?” This was pre The Godfather.

  8. About ten years ago, I had to bring my car in and get a loaner. The loaner was totally basic. I told my then seven-year old daughter if she wanted air in the car, she’d have to roll down the window. And she asked, “How do you roll down a window?”

  9. Sherry, I love that response.

    Along with ice box goes tin foil. We didn’t have ice delivered to a box in my lifetime–and barely in my mother’s, and foil has been aluminum for as long as I remember, but I picked these up from my grandparents.

    Every once in awhile I’ll say something and my kids will look at me cockeyed and I’ll realize it’s a phrase I forgot to hand down.

    I use analogies that will also become obsolete like, “Stephen King says that as you write a character it’s like an image becoming clearer in developing solution.”

    Along with the words, gestures are rendered meaningless, like the formerly universal pantomimes for dialing the phone or rolling down the car window.

  10. “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.” No idea where that came from, but my mom said it quite a bit growing up. (And no one in the family is named James.)

    VeggieTales actually had a very good joke about the lack of phone booths these days. One of the characters was looking for a phone booth is change into his superhero costume, and other said, “There aren’t any phone booths any more. Here, change behind my cell phone.”

    1. I have heard several people say, “home, James.” I’m not sure where that is from. I would love to see that episode of Veggie Tales where he is looking for a phone booth. I hope it’s on YouTube.

  11. When I was a kid, some older people called the refrigerator “the frigidaire,” after the manufacturer, although my Grandparents called it an icebox. Cars had triangular panes of glass in the side front windows that pivoted open. We always called them “no-drafts.” They were also called “wing windows” and “quarter-windows.” Sometimes the no-drafts were rectangular. We called the third seat in our 1958 silver-blue Chevy wagon the “backity-back” whether it was folded flat or upright. We called the small one-third section of the middle seat that folded down to allow access to the backity back, the “piece.” We decided early on that sitting on the piece was a big deal.

  12. When I was a child, money was tight and on our phone we had a “party line”. Everyone had to be polite, not listen in on converstions, and wait until your neighbor had completed their call before making a call of your own. My kids and grandkids think this is crazy. (Not much different from posting all your life’s happenings on “facebook”, right?

    1. We had a party line, too. There was some talk between my parents about the other party being a bookie. I thought that just meant they liked books as much as I did!

  13. Things I will always say because I’ve tried not saying them I can’t. 🙂

    Tin foil, tin can – despite not being tin in my lifetime.
    Tape a program – this used to drive my office mate (my older office mate) crazy.
    Price Club – that’s what Costco was 20 years ago.

    Most of my other verbal gaffes are malapropisms like ‘that’s a whole other kettle of monkeys” or “dimes to dollars.”

  14. I think I was in 5th grade before I found out no one knew what a counterpane was! That was thanks to a British granny!

  15. I love the “old” vernacular of Maine. As a Mainer-currently-living-in-exile seeing/hearing this post and comments makes my heart tingle a little. How about coffee? My mom had a percolator and at the local diner would order a “cup of regular”. With telephones, we dialed a telephone number or even dialed the operator–mostly for long distance calls. The phone cord kept all conversations in the public kitchen too.
    My Dad used to take the Lord’s name in vain, and also said “Geesum crow!”, which I imagine was another way to swear 🙂

  16. I’ve used most of these terms growing up, and still do. The first thing that came to mind was hydrator pan for the fruit and veggie drawers in the ice box. I still use the term tho’ nobody knows what I’m talking about. 🙃😜

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