Out With the Old

Below the Beltway
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, May 10, 2009

A new essay in a journalism industry magazine contends that middle-aged newspaper columnists are alienating young readers by making fogeyish cultural references they don't understand. This made me as angry as Mama Katzenjammer on a spanking spree.1

But then I thought about it some more and changed my mind. Suddenly, I got all "Haminahamina"2 about it. Maybe we columnists are guilty as charged. Maybe the essayist has a point.

He castigates us for having recently compared Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Eddie Haskell3, without context or elaboration. And he cites the rampant use of anachronistic expressions such as "drop a dime"4, "98-pound weakling"7 and "a tough row to hoe,"8 the last of which, he believes, might actually be misconstrued by the young to somehow refer to a woman of easy virtue.9

To solve the problem, the essayist suggests that older journalists either avoid such dated references or include glossary-like annotations for the sake of clarity.

As you can see, I think this is a swell10 idea and doesn't really hurt a columnist's narrative one bit. I see nothing wrong with taking a little extra time, and a few extra words, to explain things. I don't for one minute buy the argument that all this is unnecessary and patronizing, that it assumes young people are so self-centered and incurious that they remain culturally ignorant about things they didn't personally experience, things they think only their mother should know, to paraphrase the Beatles, a 1960s-era rock group.

~~~

1. The obese matriarch from "The Katzenjammer Kids," a once wildly popular American comic strip created in the late 1800s, featuring the antics of two German American brats, Hans and Fritz. Mama often brutally spanked the boys for their misdeeds, which included things like baking Papa's shoes in the oven, painting the living room black and putting the cat's tail in an electric outlet. Everyone spoke mit thick German accents. This was all considered riotously funny until about 1939.

2. This is an approximation of a sound made by Jackie Gleason at appropriate moments during his seminal 1950s-era sitcom, "The Honeymooners." Typically, Gleason had just been confronted with a humiliating personal truth that reduced him to the stammering ineloquence of nonsense syllables. Inevitably, this was followed by an abject apology to his wife, Alice, whom at other times he threatened to discipline via an uppercut so savage she would leave the Earth's orbit and land on the moon.

3. A fictional character from the old TV show "Leave It to Beaver," a title no one at the time believed to be remotely risque. Eddie was a brown-nosing, two-faced sycophant played by actor Ken Osmond, who did not -- rampant Internet rumors to the contrary -- go on to become a porn star named John Holmes.

4. To put a dime in a pay phone,5 usually for the purpose of ratting out someone to the police. A dime got you three minutes of conversation, after which an actual live operator named Mildred or Bernice interrupted you to demand more money. For some reason, Mildred and Bernice were instructed to speak in extremely nasal voices and to unnecessarily pronounce "5" as "FY-uv" and "9" as "NY-un."

5. A public telephone6 requiring coins to use.

6. A phone that was located in a public place, available for use by the public.

7. A skinny, effete man, as lampooned in cartoon ads for the Charles Atlas bodybuilding program at the back of '60s-era comic books. In these ads, the 98-pound weakling is on the beach with his improbably hot girlfriend when a more muscular man kicks sand in his face, just to be manly. The weakling responds by buying the Charles Atlas program. Soon, newly muscled, he returns to the beach to beat the crap out of the bully, as various buxom women in bathing suits swoon over him. These ads, which in a primitive way extolled the search for romantic love in a hostile universe, typically ran next to other ads for "X-Ray Specs," which supposedly allowed the wearer to see through women's clothing.

8. This is an agrarian reference to a very difficult task, likening it to a rocky furrow not easily prepared for cultivation with a primitive tool. Think of it as trying to reconfigure the hard drive on your MacBook without sufficient random access memory.

9. An outdated, pre-reality-TV concept suggesting a fixed societal set of moral and ethical standards, closely related to the similarly outdated notion of "shame."

10. An outdated term for "good," coined from the even more outdated "'Tis well." Yes, this seems old even to me.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon.


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