Thursday, April 16, 2009

Culture Shock 04.16.09: Warning: You may need to Google these retro references

Assuming you live long enough, there comes a time when you suddenly realize you can't understand what the younger generation is talking about. And apparently, that works both ways.

Explaining Twitter to someone who grew up with rotary dial telephones requires an answer that is longer than 140 characters. Meanwhile, whenever I explain rotary phones to someone under the age of 20, they look at me as if they think I knew Alexander Graham Bell personally.

Bell died in 1922, by the way.

But according to Ralph Keyes, technology isn't the only thing that leads to communication breakdowns between generations.

Keyes, author of "I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech," says people my age and older — mostly older — might as well be speaking Aramaic, as far as young people are concerned.

(I'm assuming everyone knows what Aramaic is, even though few people still speak it, because it's the language Jesus spoke. Also, it was mentioned in 1975's "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.")

Writing at Editor & Publisher magazine's Web site, Keyes is particularly hard on my profession, accusing us of "retrotalk," which he says is "terminology rooted in our past that may not be familiar to younger readers. Or immigrants. Or anyone at all, for that matter."

Keyes picks on New York Times columnist David Brooks — admittedly, an easy target, although not as easy a target as Brooks' colleague Thomas Friedman.

Brooks' sin was comparing Hilary Clinton to Howard Beale, the fictional newsman in the 1976 movie "Network," who famously said, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Or maybe not so famously, Keyes thinks.

But I guess he doesn't know that part of Beale's speech is an Internet hit, featured in the YouTube video "40 Inspirational Speeches in 2 Minutes." The video has racked up more than 1 million views so far. And it's nothing more than a cleverly edited inspirational speech cobbled together from inspirational speeches featured in movies spanning seven decades.

Who would have thought something so retro could be so popular with all those young people who use YouTube?

Keyes also cites a Miami Herald writer, who confused his editor by referring to Mayberry in a column. It seems the editor grew up in a home without a television and wanted to know where Mayberry was.

Do you mean to tell me that someone actually needs to have seen "The Andy Griffith Show" to know that the fictional town of Mayberry is where the show took place? Well, Shazam!

I think there are some bits of cultural knowledge people should just know, regardless of their age. After all, I've never managed to sit through "Gone with the Wind" (1939), but I do know tomorrow is another day.

Sometimes, if you don't get the reference, it isn't your fault. Some writers probably are too obscure, gleefully tossing out references to dusty cultural artifacts just as Dennis Miller did during his "Saturday Night Live" years. For example, does anyone remember Dennis Miller? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

On the other hand, is there anyone who doesn't know the origin of the phrase "Beam me up, Scotty"? If high school literature teachers think I should remember the importance of the line "To be or not to be," I should have the expectation that the average Joe on the street will know what I mean if I ask, "Where's the beef?" Especially if I ask in a crotchety old woman's voice.

If, however, the phrases "Beam me up, Scotty" and "Where's the beef?" are a mystery to you, please look them up on Google. But if the word "Google" has you confused, well I can't help you with that.

Explaining Google is a lot like explaining Twitter. And I just ran out of space.

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