The Origins of 8 Nearly Obsolete Phrases

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There are some phrases and clichés that were once common, but are now hopelessly dated thanks to changes in technology. Yet we still hear them somewhat frequently due to the preponderance of nostalgia-based cable TV stations that keep mining those dusty studio vaults for daily content. As a result, a lot of viewers born after the Reagan administration might be able to divine the meaning of these old-school expressions from the context, but they probably don’t have an inkling as to why the old folks said them in the first place. As always, mental_floss is here to assist!

1. The rabbit died

Up until the early 1980s, announcing the death of a bunny was the standard method of coyly hinting that a TV or movie character was with child. In the 1920s, way before home pregnancy tests were the norm, a woman who had suddenly started throwing up every morning had to visit her doctor rather than the drugstore to find out whether it was a bundle from heaven or a bad clam that was causing her distress. She would then have to fret for a few anxious days from that initial visit before finding out the results—her doctor had to inject her urine into the ovaries of a female rabbit and then wait 48 hours or more for the telltale changes which signaled the presence of the hCG hormone. Interestingly enough, the phrase “the rabbit died” itself was a misnomer because, as a rule, the bunny was already deceased prior to its ovaries being removed for testing purposes. (In later incarnations of the test, doctors were able to examine a rabbit's ovaries without killing it first.)

2. Drop a dime

The phrase “dimed me out” is sometimes used today to indicate that someone has been ratted out or otherwise turned in to the authorities. It’s a twist on slang from the 1960s and '70s, when we “dropped a dime” on someone. Prior to the big Ma Bell deregulation in 1984, the cost for a regular, local, standard-issue telephone call was ten cents. If you wanted to make an anonymous, untraceable call—say, to report nefarious activity of some sort to law enforcement personnel—a public telephone (or payphone) was the obvious solution. Phone booths were so ubiquitous that no one would give you a second glance as you inserted a dime into the slot to call the local cops to squeal on a neighborhood kid who was all hopped up on goofballs.

3. Don’t know [excrement] from Shinola

Shinola (pronounced shy-no-la) was a brand of wax-based shoe polish that was on the market from 1907 until 1960. The classic phrase that used the product to describe a person’s intelligence—or lack thereof—gained popularity during World War II (GIs can always be counted on to coin a colorful phrase or two while dodging enemy fire). Appearance-wise, Shinola didn’t look any different than any other shoe polish paste, but somehow “He doesn’t know crap from Kiwi” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

4. You sound like a broken record

Literally speaking, a broken record would be cracked or fractured so that it was unplayable on a turntable. What the exasperated speaker meant when he called you a broken record was that you were repeating yourself, which is what a record with a deep scratch would do. Such a flaw would not only prevent the needle from progressing, it would also cause it to bounce backward a groove or two on the record and replay the same piece of the song over and over and over, until you lifted the tonearm up and manually advanced it. Bill Withers purposely repeated “I know” 26 times on his 1971 hit “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but nevertheless it is a good example of what your mom meant with her “broken record” simile when you asked for the umpteenth time in a row if you could please, please, please go to Mt. Splashmore.

5. More ______ than Carter’s has liver pills

New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell confounded many viewers during his 2013 appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show when he stated that in the 1996 election his opponent “had more money than Carter had liver pills.” The more senior audience members realized that Mr. Pascrell was referring not to President Jimmy Carter, but rather to a patent medicine originally formulated by one Samuel Carter in 1868. Thanks to saturation advertising campaigns that promoted the tablets as a cure for everything from “overindulging” in liquor consumption to headaches to indigestion to a sallow complexion, Carter’s Little Liver Pills were once as common as aspirin in American medicine cabinets. Carter-Wallace stopped hawking their little pills (in which the active ingredient was a laxative) in 1961 after the FTC forced them to remove the word “liver” from the product name, but that didn’t stop folks from rolling their eyes during an argument and exclaiming “You’ve got more excuses than Carter’s has liver pills!”

6. Don’t touch that dial!

This admonition started out back in the days when radio was the main source of entertainment in U.S. households; in order to change the station, a person needed to turn a dial rather than push a button or type in a station number. So it was common for stations to promote upcoming shows or news broadcasts with great fanfare, warning listeners in stentorian tones, “Don’t touch that dial,” hinting that if you changed the channel you would miss something of life-altering importance. Once entertainment and news moved from radio to TV, the announcer’s warning remained the same, since television sets were likewise equipped with a rotary dial to switch from station to station. That is, of course, until push buttons and digital tuning were developed and slowly became commonplace in the early 1980s.

7. Film at eleven

Local news stations still regularly use “teasers” in between commercials to entice viewers with breaking stories, but as a rule they accompany those teasers with a snippet of actual video footage of the highlighted event. That wasn’t the case before the invention of videotape; prior to that time, camera crews that were on the scene of a major fire or dramatic hostage situation recorded the happenings on 16mm film, which then had to be transported back to the station for developing and editing. Thus, many significant events that occurred during the afternoon—such as earthquakes or riots—were often only talked about during the 6pm broadcast, with film footage of the event not shown until the late night news.

8. One lump or two?

This question, when posited in Looney Tunes cartoons or a Three Stooges short, always ended in a welt-raising bonk to the head. While still available today, sugar used to be predominantly served in individual compressed cubes, or “lumps.” This particular innovation was the brainchild of Jean Louis Chambon, who invented the technique to humidify, dry, and compress the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar into a convenient lump in 1949. It was far more sanitary and convenient than the use of a communal spoon in a dish of granulated sugar, as had previously been the practice in restaurants and at tea parties and coffee klatches. The person serving coffee or tea would, at the time, graciously inquire as to how much sugar the guest preferred by asking “one lump or two?” and then would place the requested cubes onto the saucer before serving the beverage. Benjamin Eisenstadt invented the sugar packet in 1945 (and 12 years later, he created Sweet ‘N Low), making portioned sugar not only easier to distribute around the table but also to discreetly slip into your purse. Not that we’d ever do such a thing.

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March 25, 2014 - 9:00pm
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