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Guide for future cultural explorers

I sometimes do historical research and occasionally come across names or terms that are unknown to me. Recently, for instance, I came across the term “Macpherson Blues.” It took me quite a while to identify. It turned out to be a private 1790s vigilante group that supported the repression imposed on the nation by President John Adams.

Another time I encountered the phrase “double in brass” in an 1800s newspaper. After some digging, I found this is a term that means working two jobs, though in the 20th century it seemed to evolve into a sports term.

I got to wondering how difficult it will be for folks a hundred years from now to figure out what we meant when they read our old publications. Of course, so much of our output now is not in family letters or employee newsletters but in very perishable electronic impulses that are here this year and gone next year, so maybe it will be less of a problem when we leave less of a record.

Still, in the last generation or two there is a plethora of stuff that will likely puzzle those in the future. It was in my generation that pop culture became much more influential. Baby boomers with their disposable income in the post-war years turned everything from song titles to inscriptions on bathroom walls into the common currency of communication.

Insults like “spaz,” or “fink” are rarely heard anymore, but at one time they were incessant in the conversation of junior high students. (Junior high itself seems to have passed, too.) So were favorable terms like “keen” and “boss.” “Ginchiest” was a term for a terrific girl, derived from a novelty song by Edd Byrnes, a wildly popular television actor during the run of a detective series called “77 Sunset Strip.”

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, “states’ rights” and “We reserve the right to deny service to anyone” were well known code terms for support of racial segregation.

In the late 1960s “captured enemy documents” became a sort of joke phrase. The Johnson administration’s Vietnam fiasco regularly attributed intelligence information to CEDs, but never seemed able to turn it into winning the war.

Some terms came from who-knows-where. One type of footwear had names like thongs, zorris, flip flops, and clip clops. Today the term “thong” has evolved, but the other three are still in use that way.

Songs gave us phrases we used in conversation: “Rock On” (Buddy Holly), “Kind of a Drag” (the Buckinghams), “Signed, Sealed, And Delivered” (Stevie Wonder), “Let It All Hang Out” (the Hombres). They were played by people we called deejays who for some reason have evolved into DJs.

Some phrases from songs really reached us with meaning and inspiration. “I Shall Be Released.” “We Shall Overcome.” “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.”


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