The Origins of 8 Nearly Obsolete Phrases

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

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.

All images courtesy of Thinkstock.

17 Things to Look for the Next Time You Watch Office Space

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Twenty years ago (yes, you’re really that old) Office Space forever changed how we look at cubicle life. Like a much funnier Dilbert meets Beavis and Butt-head meets the then-largely misunderstood world of Silicon Valley, the comedy movie from Beavis creator Mike Judge ably skewered everything from didactic middle-management bosses to chain restaurant uniforms. And it gave us a charming Jennifer Aniston love story plus a rap mini-music video dedicated to the destruction of malfunctioning printers.

For all that and more, the 1999 film that originally performed poorly at the box office has become a widely quoted cult sensation. Here are the interesting facts and references to look for the next time you watch Office Space.

1. It was shot very, very far from Silicon Valley.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Office Space keeps its setting purposefully vague, but the opening driving shots clue a perceptive viewer into the location: Notice the sign for Preston Road on Highway 289 in the background, which indicates that we’ve been dropped around Plano, Texas. The movie was shot in and around Austin, where Mike Judge lives, making him something of a Hollywood outsider. But Office Space is clearly attuned to the rituals and lingo of Silicon Valley’s tech scene. In fact, Judge worked as an engineer in the California area in the 1980s, which would go on to inform much of his satire, especially his popular HBO show Silicon Valley.

2. It was Mike Judge's first foray into movies ... and it didn't work out as planned.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Starting out as a self-taught animator in Texas, Judge made his name in entertainment with cartoons that aired on Saturday Night Live and, eventually, turned into his own MTV show. Beavis and Butt-head premiered in 1993, when the cable network’s scripted offerings were still in their infancy, and quickly became both a commercial hit and a cause of nationwide controversy. He went on to co-create Fox’s slightly more family-friendly King of the Hill, but Office Space marked his live-action directorial debut in film (he previously helmed the movie adaptation Beavis and Butt-head Do America). Made on an estimated $10 million budget, it earned only slightly more than that at U.S. theaters. Sadly, that failure has become something of a pattern for Judge’s movie work: Future efforts Idiocracy and Extract failed to catch on with initial audiences, though the former has also grown into a cult hit.

3. It didn't exactly make Ron Livingston a household name.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Office Space had all the makings of a breakout for its handsome, top-billed star, who was coming off a smaller part in the comedy phenomenon Swingers. But given its early commercial disappointment, he continued to seek out smaller parts and interesting, left-field projects like Adaptation. and The Cooler. He finally got his mainstream cred as the boyfriend of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City (he's the one who broke up with her via Post-it note) with the massively popular horror flick The Conjuring. He's currently starring in two series: A Million Little Things and Loudermilk.

4. Initech has a very symbolic statue.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The statue outside the Initech office shows a square peg in a round hole. No coincidence, it’s a reference to the common idiom referring to an individualist who doesn’t fit into a particular social mold. That could describe Livingston’s Peter, his co-worker friends, Jennifer Aniston’s Joanna—or, more self-referentially, Judge himself, who has always made movies and series about outsiders.

5. You can tell a lot about Bill Lumbergh from his vanity plate.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Everything you need to know about Division V.P. Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) is established in an early shot of him pulling into his reserved parking space at Initech in a blue Porsche with a customized license plate that reads, “MY PRSHE.” Low-key. (Also notice the lack of any regional designation on the license plates in the film.)

6. "TPS" has a real meaning.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Lumbergh’s single-minded obsession with the details of “TPS reports” drives much of the cubicle-set humor, but what exactly is a TPS report? Potential meanings abound, especially given that companies love an abbreviation, but Judge revealed that TPS refers to Test Program Set reports, which dated back to his engineering days.

7. The food at Chotchkie's sounds less than appetizing.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A sign at the restaurant promotes its “shrimp poppers,” a food name that leaves a lot to the imagination. Later, chipper server Brian highlights “pizza shooters” and “extreme fajitas.” Whatever a pizza shooter is, it can’t be good.

8. Diedrich Bader had a very specific look in mind for Lawrence.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Diedrich Bader, who plays everyone’s favorite beer-guzzling neighbor Lawrence, came to his Office Space role with clear inspiration. “What I really wanted to look like was somebody who loved the Allman Brothers,” he told The A.V. Club in 2012. Sounds about right.

9. There's a real Milton out there.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Judge based the vengeful staffer, also the focus of several of his animated shorts, on one of his real-life co-workers when he was an engineer. Judge asked the man how he was doing, and he responded that he was going to quit his job because his desk had been moved around too many times.

10. Jennifer Aniston helped the movie get made.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The cast of Office Space has one instantly recognizable name: Jennifer Aniston, who was by then of course already a superstar for playing Rachel on NBC’s Friends. In a reunion for the film, Judge thanked Aniston just for signing on (though he added that she was great in the part), saying, “It helped us put the studio at ease a little bit—at least they had one famous person."

11. Michael Bolton has embraced the punchlines about him.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Peter’s co-worker Michael Bolton (played by David Herman) hates the fact that he shares a name with a musician who is, in his words, a “no-talent ass-clown." While the real-life Bolton initially seemed peeved about the mockery, he now signs Office Space DVDs for fans.

12. Chotchkie's is a thinly veiled TGI Fridays.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

The chain restaurant by the office is notable not just for its fried food but for its emphasis on “flair” worn by the servers (15 pieces of flair is the minimum). Office Space is clearly mocking TGI Fridays, whose staff used to dress with seemingly endless buttons and ornamentation. TGI Fridays actually phased out flair by 2005, supposedly as a result of the movie.

13. Y2K makes a cameo.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Peter tells Joanna while having lunch that in his job he updates software for the “2000 switch.” In 1999, the impending change of the millennium was in fact a massive headache for tech companies and their programming of dates, a phenomenon that became known as Y2K.

14. The movie reintroduced red Swingline staplers.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Milton’s beloved red stapler was actually painted that color by the prop department, so that it would pop on the screen. As it was one of the more hilarious throughlines in Office Space, viewers started to seek it out in real life. The brand Swingline, which had phased out red staplers, decided to bring the product back. Design-minded executive assistants everywhere can thank Judge.

15. Mike Judge is hiding in plain sight.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In an uncredited role, the writer and director plays Joanna’s boss at Chotchkie's, reprimanding her about her lack of flair. (Though it’s hard to recognize him under the mustache and wig.)

16. Judge is a not-so-secret hip-hop head.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Hip-hop is repeatedly played and referenced throughout Office Space, particularly gangsta rap, which was ascendant in the '90s. The famous printer-smashing sequence is set to the Geto Boys’ “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” Also notice Michael Bolton rapping along to Scarface while driving in the movie’s opening. Judge has cleverly curated hip-hop in much of his work, from rap videos in Beavis and Butt-head to a collaboration with Danny Brown for Silicon Valley.

17. Milton foreshadows the climax a lot.

A still from 'Office Space' (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Milton mentions the possibility of burning down the Initech office several times before actually doing it, making it perhaps the least surprising act of arson depicted in film.

BioLite Has Designed a Headlamp That Won't Irritate or Slip Off Your Head

BioLite
BioLite

Headlamps are convenient in theory. Instead of fumbling with a flashlight or your phone in the dark, you can strap one to your head and walk your dog, do some late-night grilling, or venture around your campsite hands-free.

But in reality, the awkward design—with a bulky light that digs into your skin and slides down your forehead—cancels out much of the product's appeal. Luckily, it doesn't have to be this way, as the folks at BioLite have demonstrated with their reinvented headlamp.

The BioLite HeadLamp 330, which debuted on Kickstarter in 2018 and is now available on Amazon, promises to make you forget you're even wearing it. Inspired by modern wearables, BioLite has retooled various elements of the clunky traditional design to make it as comfortable as it is functional.

A man wearing a red HeadLamp 330
BioLite

The ultra-thin light sits flat against your skull, which means you won't have any painful marks in the middle of your forehead when you take it off. The band itself is made from a moisture-wicking fabric that feels good on your skin, even when you're working up a sweat. And unlike conventional headlamps, BioLite has redistributed the power source to the back of the head in its design, balancing the weight and taking care of any slippage issues.

As is the case with other BioLite products, technology is an essential part of the design. The 330-lumen lamp projects light up to nearly 250 feet in front of you. There are variable lighting settings, too: You can opt for either a white spot or floodlight, both with dimming options, or a strobe light feature; there's also a red floodlight. It can run for three and a half hours at maximum brightness or 40 hours at minimum brightness, and when it needs to be recharged, you can just plug it into a micro-USB source like a solar panel or powerbank.

Get your own BioLite Headlamp for $49 on Amazon. It's available in in ember red, ocean teal, sunrise yellow, or midnight gray.

Teal headlamp.
BioLite

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER