Drink the Corporate Kool-Aid? Not If You Want to Sit in the Catbird Seat

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we're back with Ralph Keyes, author of the new book "I Love It When You Talk Retro."

RS: He explores the origins of terms that Americans use even if they are too young to remember where these terms came from.

Ralph Keyes
RALPH KEYES: "Take a phrase like drink the Kool-Aid. Now that refers back to the nineteen seventy-eight episode where the followers of the Reverend Jim Jones obeyed his orders to commit suicide -- "

RS: "In Jonestown."

RALPH KEYES: " -- in Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a flavored fruit drink."

AA: "Which was not Kool-Aid."

RALPH KEYES: "It was not Kool-Aid, it was Flavor Aid. For a long time you didn't hear the phrase drink the Kool-Aid. Then, and I sort of tracked this, you began to see references several years later to drink the Jim Jones Kool-Aid. And now we say drink the Kool-Aid whenever we want to refer to somebody who slavishly follows the orders or the ideology or the path of another person. And I think we'll be using that for quite a while."

AA: "That's used in a lot of corporate references, isn't it? Sort of like they drank the corporate Kool-Aid."

RALPH KEYES: "Exactly."

AA: "I've got to ask you about a term that I've heard forever and I [was] never sure what it meant: catbird seat. What is a catbird seat?"

RALPH KEYES: "OK, now a catbird is a bird that sits at the top of a tree and kind of caws and caws and in essence directs the action. And this became a phrase in the South, to be in the catbird seat, to be in charge of things or really in a good place. And the Brooklyn Dodgers [baseball] announcer Red Barber began to use this phrase a lot: Are you sitting in the catbird seat? or He's sitting in the catbird seat. He said he picked it up in a poker game in Cincinnati from a Southern player."

AA: "And that was so long ago, that was when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn before they moved to Los Angeles."

RALPH KEYES: "That's right."

RS: "This is so tied, this book is so tied to American history and culture, how can you help our listeners who speak English as a foreign language learn some of these terms and in essence learn a lot more about American culture."

RALPH KEYES: "Well, one way would be to read my book. [laughter]"

AA: "After all, it takes two to tango, right?"


RS: "Where did that come from?"

RALPH KEYES: "Well, tangos became popular in this country following on what were called animal dances. And animal dances were similar to today's rock dances where you dance pretty much separately. But then tango took over, and in tango you really had to dance in synchronization with your partner.
"So then the phrase it takes two to tango became popular. Now this was kind of a double entendre also, but it's endured as a phrase since the nineteen twenties. I once saw during the crisis in the Balkans, when the Albanians accepted a proposal to end the fighting in Kosovo that had already been spurned by the Serbs, a Russian diplomat said 'It takes two to tango.'"

RS: "How can our listeners get a handle on some of these retro terms?"

RALPH KEYES: "Well, I think the idea in the case of retro terms is less to study language and more to study social history. So I think there are any number of good books out there on social history. I'm thinking, for example, of David Halberstam's book on the fifties. Jane and Michael Stern put out very good books on pop culture. And in reading them you will, I think, find in case after case after case that you're beginning to see where some of the phrases come from that you hear all the time that are rooted in our history."

RS: "Or do an Internet search, because a lot of these terms really haven't evolved like slang."

RALPH KEYES: "No. No, no. They're very rooted in a very specific episode in history, a movie, a television show, a radio show. A product -- I mean, you hear all the time about secret decoder rings: 'Get out your secret decoder rings and try to figure this one out.'"

AA: "That was a promotional item in breakfast cereals, children's breakfast cereal."

RALPH KEYES: "But you know, Avi, the interesting thing is, I always assumed like everyone else, well, yeah, there were secret decoder rings all over the place on kids' fingers in the forties and fifties. I looked into it. Actually there were lots of secret decoder badges and pins. No rings."

RS: Author Ralph Keyes. His new book is called "I Love It When You Talk Retro."

AA: You can find part one of our interview at our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.