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.

When David Bowie Launched His Own Internet Service Provider

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

There was a surprise waiting for Canadian buyers of The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979, a greatest hits collection by the musician that was released in the summer of 1998. Inside the package was a notice announcing the arrival of BowieNet, a major undertaking spearheaded by the legendary musician that promised a unique portal to the internet. For $19.95 a month, users could access BowieNet in the same way that they logged on to America Online, signing on via a dial-up connection to gain access to the web, email, and a variety of perks for devoted Bowie fans.

The news was a little premature. The Canadian version of the album had been released too early, and BowieNet wasn’t yet up and running when fans first read the news. But by September 1 of that year, Bowie had launched a pioneering effort in the intersection between music, the internet, and fandom. In many ways, BowieNet anticipated the concept of social networking five years before MySpace debuted and six years before Facebook came into existence. It was a fitting accomplishment for an artist who spent his entire career looking for revolutionary ways to share his work.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

Bowie, who first rose to fame during the 1970s glam rock era, had long been fascinated by the promise of digital connectivity. He was reportedly using email as early as 1993. In 1994, he released a CD-ROM of his single, “Jump, They Say,” that allowed users to edit their own music video for the song. In 1996, he released one of the first digital singles, "Telling Lies," and sold 375,000 downloads in just two months. In 1997, Bowie presented a “cybercast” of a Boston concert, which ultimately proved to be too ambitious for the technology of the era (viewers of the live stream were confronted with error messages and frozen feeds).

Clearly excited by the unexplored possibilities these cutting-edge efforts offered, Bowie decided to stake out more digital real estate right around the same time he released "Telling Lies." In 1996, two internet marketers named Robert Goodale and Ron Roy approached Bowie with the idea of building an online fan club that would double as an internet service provider (ISP). In essence, Bowie would be offering online access via a dial-up number using a turnkey web design system from a company called Concentric Network Corporation. The site was developed by Nettmedia, which had worked on web content for the women-centric Lilith Fair music festival that had caught Bowie’s attention.

While users would be free to access any part of the internet, their default landing page would be DavidBowie.com, a place to access exclusive Bowie photos and videos, as well as a unique @davidbowie.com email address and 5 MB of storage space so that they could create their own content. If they wanted to remain with their current internet service provider, they’d pay $5.95 a month for membership.

Bowie liked the idea and became the first investor in UltraStar, Goodale and Roy’s company. More than a figurehead, Bowie actively helped to conceive of BowieNet as having a unique identity. Whereas America Online was a little sterile, Bowie’s aesthetic was more experimental. There were 3D-rendered environments and Flash animation sequences. The CD-ROM sent to subscribers included a customized Internet Explorer browser and music and video tracks, including encrypted material that could only be unlocked online.

More significantly, Bowie used his branded portal to interact with fans. Posting as “Sailor” on the BowieNet message boards, Bowie regularly logged on to answer questions, debunk news reports, or comment on ongoing conversations. He also hosted online chats in real time. In 2017, Newsweek shared excerpts of one 2000 session:

gates asks: "do you gamble in casinos Dave?"
David Bowie answers: No, I only do cartwheels—and don't call me Dave!

queenjanine asks: "Is there anyone you haven't worked with (either dead or alive) that you wish you could?"
David Bowie answers: I love working with dead people. They're so compliant, they never argue back. And I'm always a better singer than they are. Although they can look very impressive on the packaging.

A screen shot from BowieNet, David Bowie's internet portal
Laurence Campling, YouTube

In his loose interactions with fans, Bowie and BowieNet anticipated the explosion of social media. It was an area that interested Bowie, as he often spoke of the idea of art being unfinished until an audience provided their reaction.

“Artists like Duchamp were so prescient here—the idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience comes to it and adds their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the gray space in the middle,” Bowie told the BBC in 1999. “That gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”

With BowieNet, the artist was helping to facilitate that response, in one instance even soliciting a co-creator relationship. In 1999, Bowie took lyrics from an online songwriting contest to help create “What’s Really Happening,” which he put on an album released that same year. He also planned on having a working webcam that peered into his recording studio (though it’s not quite clear whether he achieved it). Ultimately, it was the advancement of internet technology that led to BowieNet's downfall.

With the dissolution of dial-up, BowieNet went from a high of 100,000 subscribers to becoming largely irrelevant in the early 2000s. In 2006, UltraStar’s assets were sold to Live Nation and BowieNet was quietly shut down—though it would take another six years for Bowie to actually announce that fact, via his Facebook page of all places.

But for the 10 years it lasted, BowieNet was the artist's strange, revolutionary predictor of the growing importance of fandom online.

“At the moment,” Bowie told CNN in 1999, the internet "seems to have no parameters whatsoever. It's chaos out there—which I thrive on.”

L’Oréal’s New Wearable Sensor Keeps Track of Your Daily UV Exposure

L'Oréal USA
L'Oréal USA

Anyone who has ever suffered a sunburn knows that too much exposure to UV radiation is bad for your skin. But in the moment, it can be hard to tell when you’ve gotten too much sun—especially during the winter, when you might not think you need sunscreen. (In reality, snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV light, so you may end up getting hit with the same rays twice.) A new wearable sensor spotted by Wired aims to make understanding your sun exposure a whole lot easier.

L'Oréal’s new La Roche-Posay My Skin Track UV sensor pairs with a smartphone app to alert users when they’ve had high levels of UV exposure. Developed by L'Oréal’s Tech Incubator in collaboration with Northwestern University engineering professor John Rogers and Swiss designer Yves Béhar, the sensor measures UVA rays (which are associated with skin aging and skin cancer) and uses an algorithm to calculate UVB exposure (which is associated with sunburn and skin cancer).

The UV sensor
L'Oréal USA

At only half an inch tall and 1.3 inches long, the waterproof sensor is designed to be discreetly attached to your clothes, watchband, or sunglasses. The sensor's LED detector measures UV rays as sunlight passes through a small window in the device, then transfers the data to your phone via a near-field communication (the same technology in some hotel key cards). It stores the photons from the UV rays in a capacitor, eliminating the need for a battery.

Based on this data, the My Skin Track app can tell you how close you're getting to the maximum limit of UV exposure doctors recommend per day. It also provides updates about the air quality, pollen count, and humidity wherever you are at any given moment. Based on this information, as well as data about your specific skin type and skin tone, the app's Skin Advice feature will provide customized tips for keeping your skin healthy. It also recommends specific products—La Roche-Posay items can be bought directly through the app, should you desire.

The sensors are exclusively available through Apple stores. You can order one online for $59.95.

[h/t Wired]

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