Google+ Followers

Monday, July 17, 2017


I love expressions from the past, especially the ones we see in classic films. These expressions were once applied universally to our lifestyles and the technology of the time but most have become a bit out of date.  For those of a certain age, you will understand them; for the younger crowd, maybe not. Either way I’ll give a short explanation on each:

Asleep at the switch. I still hear this occasionally as a description of someone who is not giving full attention to something. However, it originated from the days when railroads had humans doing a lot of work that is automated now. If a guy didn’t change the tracks for a train going to Chicago and it wound up in Cleveland, he definitely was asleep at the switch.

That and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee. Yes, there was a time when coffee was a nickel a cup. I saw a sign in a diner when I was a kid that read "cup of coffee, cigarette, and a toothpick: 7 cents." Throw a nickel on the counter at Starbucks and see what you get.

Came in over the transom. Does anyone remember transoms? They were windows above the door that many old hotels and houses had to allow for better ventilation.  In some comedy movies with stars like The Three Stooges, you may see them going through the transom.

Put through the wringerIf someone was working too hard, they may have said they were “put through the wringer.” Many years ago the wringer was used to squeeze the water out of washed clothes before they were hung in the backyard to dry on the “line”. The “line” was a piece of rope the clothes were hung on to dry.   The clothes were held on the line by “clothes’ pins”.  Wringers were replaced long ago by the spin cycle in modern washing machines.

Best thing since sliced bread. Sliced bread was quite an invention at one time and anything that was also newly invented and convenient could be referred to being the best thing since sliced bread.

Film at 11. That was the tease for TV news in the days long before live reporting.

Beam me up Scotty. "Star Trek" technology from the 60s and an expression you may still hear occasionally.

Let’s get cranking. Popular in the days when cars had cranks to start them; no ignition switches and starters then.

Dial her up. This comes from the days when if you called a girl you liked; it would be on a rotary dial phone. No push buttons in those days.  No caller ID or call waiting either.

Here is one of my favorites.  In the great crime film from 1931, "The Public Enemy", James Cagney is a wise guy crook driving a new stick shift fancy roadster. The stick shift (or synchromesh transmission) was a new item at that time and when a valet goes to park Cagney’s car, he grinds the gears. Cagney shouts, "Hey, stupid, be careful! That thing’s got gears. That ain’t no Ford!"
Cagney was referring to the Model T Fords of that era which, as he said, didn’t have gears.

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment" 
Here is a quiz:  In the mid 1930’s, actor Warren William played Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer Perry Mason in a series of films.  The Perry of that era was a lot different from the latter day  Raymond Burr series.  William played him as a playboy drunk.  In one film Perry is returning to his office after a night on the town when a friend describes him as “so drunk that as the elevator went up he began doing the rumba to the starter’s castanets.”  Can you explain what his friend meant?  If you know the answer, you are a true classic movie expert.  If you don't know the answer, here it is:  In the old days, buildings that had a lot of elevators usually had a guy guiding people into which car to use. He was called a "starter." and when a car was full of passengers he would click a set of castanets as a signal for the elevator operator to take take his passengers to their various floors.  Needless to say that was a job that became obsolete fairly quickly.

For a look at a "Starter" in action google "The Apartment" (1960) starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine from YouTube and fast forward to the 12:00 mark.  In this scene a starter walks by and clicks his castanets to elevator operator MacLaine to let her know her car is full.

It's a good example of how things were done in the past.  The things we do now are in the present but don't hold your breath thinking they will never change.


Jim McAllister said...

This month it's a look back at some old time expressions that we don't hear much anymore. I think the example of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon on the elevator in a scene from "The Apartment" is a good example of this. Has anyone seen an elevator "starter" recently? Problem not since clicking those castanets to tell an operator the car was full is a long gone job.

Thanks for reading. Please leave question if you wish. JM

Mike Slater said...


I rember the saying put through the wringer because when I was about five my grandmother had a wringer washer she used and then would hang the wash on the line which dried fast in the summertime.

Glo said...

Yep, those sayings are a gas. A blast from the past. Bitchin’! Sorry about the cuss word – don’t flip your wig or have a cow. Sometimes I get hairy with my slang. Yeah, sometimes I got toys in my attic. Well, gotta burn rubber. Later gator.

Jim McAllister said...


I well remember the wringer washers which brings back a memory of an expression commonly used then when someone would get upset about something: "Don't get your tit caught in the wringer."

My mom would hang the wash in the backyard and use a "clothes prop" to raise the line higher so nothing would drag the ground.

\She hated hanging clothes in the basement in the winter because they seemed so much fresher after drying in the sun. She was right!

Jim McAllister said...

Good ones, Glo! Good to hear from you; it's been a while.

Howe about this one: "Don't get your bowels in an uproar!"

I'm still enjoying those CDs you gave me a few years ago. Great tunes.

Jim McAllister said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim McAllister said...

I knew all of them except the one about elevators and “Film at 11” No TV and no elevators in Tuba City/ I first ran into an elevator in the Professional Building at 13 E. Monroe (later VNB headquarters until 1971) My sister had a orthodontist appointment in the Professional Building and my parents let me fly from Flagstaff on Frontier Airlines DC-3 with her. It was 1951 or so. Lots of excitement that day, first flight, first elevator, and I got to sit on the pilots lap and “fly” the plane. A big day for a 10 year old. And now I’m 74!

Jim Johnson

Jim McAllister said...


Elevators were a big deal years ago and being a "starter" was considered an important job as they would usher people into the elevators and make sure that all ran smoothly so people didn't have to wait long to get an elevator to their floor. I think they disappeared as an economy move and the elevator operators were next as the automated self service elevators came into being. It was great for the buildings financially but it meant a lack of service and job losses for the operators and the starters.

I still miss the sound of those castanets!

Arizona Dave said...

Outstanding and very creative...always fun to read your articles...

Remember many of them from my past years living the good life before technology, and then it all changed...
NOW, it's 2017(Yikes), and I have a fiend who uses the caption, "I'm a 3-6-3 guy" which in his terms means he borrows money at 3%, loans it at 6%, and plays golf at 3:00 P.M.

...and I played Hide & Go Seek using the telephone pole as home base...and when you strayed away to find the hiders, they would run to the telephone pole, and shout 'HOME FREE'.

The Open Championship this week in England....I'm picking a long shot, Ian Poulter. Hi to Barb.

Stay cool.

Jim McAllister said...

Hi Dave,

I appreciate the kudos. Always good to hear from you.

I remember many hide and go seek games from the old days. It was a terrible feeling to be caught and have to become "it." I remember when someone was caught there was a call of "Ally, ally in come free!"

Poulter may be a pretty good underdog choice at The Open. He has played some good golf this year and usually make the cut so you may have picked a good underdog there. Stenson never seems to let up so I have to make him the favorite. I would like to see Spieth win as I think he is a good kid and a good representative for the States. That was a hell of a win he had with that chip in at Hartford. I wouldn't mind seeing Phil take it as a sentimental win for him.

Thanks for your comments; always good to hear from you.