Don’t Touch That Dial… And Other Terms of ‘Grampa-ese’

The comic strip Pickles, by Brian Crane, tells the story of a senior-aged couple, Earl and Opal, and features Earl’s special relationship with his young grandson, Nelson.

Earl loves to tell Nelson about the “good old days” and even though he often exaggerates (or maybe because he exaggerates) Nelson loves to hear the stories.

In a recent Pickles, Earl asks Nelson, about the “shenanigans” he had been up to. Nelson has no idea what he’s talking about, so Earl tries to explain by using other words—skullduggery, tom-foolery, hi-jinks, hanky-panky—none of which mean much to the little boy who wonders if he can get a dictionary of “Grampa-ese.”

How often do words or phrases like these turn up in personal histories? Our elders (and even some of our own generation) use words that might require a “Grampa-ese” dictionary if the generations yet to come want to know what it’s all about!

Here are a few words and phrases that come to mind for me…

Early radio and TV shows always advised, “Don’t touch that dial!” Today’s version might be “Don’t click the remote,” but I don’t think that has the same panache, do you?

If something comes on really strong, it comes on like Gangbusters, right? Do you remember where that phrase comes from?

When something is really great, it’s a crackerjack! This was a popular expression in the late 1890s that supposedly is the source for the name of the “candy coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize” treat, introduced at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893.

Remember this commercial?


If something is not so great, it’s nothing to write home about. What’s the new version? “Nothing to Skype about” or “Nothing to post as a status?”


Is a big deal still a hullabaloo? Could it be a real shindig? Those words date from the early 18th and 19th centuries, but I’ll always associate them with the 1960s TV shows by those names.

And while it’s still cool to say that something is cool (a word that lives on, generation to generation), I’m dating myself if I say that your plans sound groovy or far-out.

Every new political scandal is a “something”-gate. Do you think most young political reporters (or young people reading your personal history) know the origin of that term?

When was the last time you heard about a younger person going shopping for dress shoes, trousers, or dungarees?

Men can still go to a Barbershop, but do women still visit the Beauty Parlor?



My grandparents kept food cold in an icebox—long after that name was not a literal description.



Teens today don’t date (at least not as we of an older generation knew it), so they certainly don’t go courting and they don’t keep company with each other.

So what words have you heard from elders (or perhaps still use yourself) that might require an explanation in the future? What can you add to this list?

About today’s contributor: D. Fran Morley is a freelance writer and editor and serves as Content Editor for the Association of Personal Historians. She thinks that is a cool job to have with a groovy group of people. 

The comic strip Pickles is drawn by Brian Crane and syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group. View his work online at Go Comics.

Photo credits: Early TV set by John Atherton. Icebox image from Magi Media Use for both via Wikimedia Commons; Hullabaloo photo from Hullabaloo fan site on Facebook.

This entry was posted in Elderly/Aging, Family Stories, Personal Historians, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Don’t Touch That Dial… And Other Terms of ‘Grampa-ese’

  1. My mom talked about going to her beauty operator. And she used to refer to leftover as “cleaning out the icebox night.”

    In this play I’m in, there is a line “You’re not pouring lemonade. You’re pouring the Kool-aid.” I wonder if everyone will understand that reference to the tragedy at Jonestown.

    Language keeps evolving, doesn’t it?

    • Fran Morley says:

      Beauty operator! Yes, that’s what my mom called her hairdresser, too! (Bea’s Beauty Parlor in Knox, Indiana) That’s where I got my long hair cut to chin length when I was in 5th grade. Bea said she ‘bobbed’ my hair – another old-time term. I can still see that tiny little shop like it was yesterday!

  2. cj Madigan says:

    One of my favorites is “dial tone” or “dial the number”.

    I’m just getting a personal history ready for the final proof before heading to the printer. The editors have included a number of end notes putting some of the names and events in context, such as “Economic Crisis 2008”, Teddy Kennedy, “Kaiser-built ships”, and Wall Street. Who knows how far in the future our books will live?

  3. Beth LaMie says:

    I love the clip of the Cracker Jack commercial! As it happens, I interviewed a woman for a story whose great uncle, Fred Rueckheim, created Cracker Jack at 65th & Cicero on the southwest side of Chicago. Originally it was called Ruckheim’s Cracker Jack. Thanks for the memories.

    P.S. ‘Pickles’ is the first comic my hubby & I read each night in the newspaper. Sometimes it strikes just a bit too cloase to home. lol

  4. Marty Walton says:

    Well, let’s see. Do they still make penny loafers and saddle shoes? It’s been more than half a century since I had to worry if my seams were straight. And before telephone numbers were just numbers, there were the exchanges. My family’s phone number wasn’t 342-3762, it was Fidelity 2 3762. First said to the operator, and later dialed as FI2-3762 My cousin’s exchange was Pilgrim, as in PI5-8419. How about the Elizabeth Taylor movie, Butterfield 8, or the Glenn Miller hit, Pennsylvania 6 5000? Back in those days, phone numbers had personalities!

    • Fran Morley says:

      They sure did, Marty! I’m trying now to imagine how that Glenn Miller hit would have sounded with just numbers…. and it doesn’t work at all!

  5. Annie Payne says:

    A fascinating glimpse behind some of the words and phrases that have been imported into my country via TV programs. Marty, did you have ‘party lines’ for your telephones? In the country, up to about 10 households/farms shared one telephone wire and could, by picking up their phone receiver, ‘listen in’ to other phone calls on the same party line. Nan always blew a silver policeman’s whistle loudly into the phone before she gave the telephonist at the exchange the number she wanted! That certainly discouraged others from overhearing her phone calls!!

  6. Ah, phone numbers! Ludlow was ours in South Florida–so lyrical. And since my maiden name was Kuhl” (pronounced, cool) it was a source of eternal teasing–I’ll have to check with my brothers’s kids to see if this is still the case. I recently hosted a “story-sharing” event for a writer’s group I started and engaged the audience at the end to share some fo their memories, and “party-line” stories drew in the entire audience. HIgh jinx (another word!) abounded on the party line. Thanks Fran. Great post!

  7. While reviewing a proof of my memoir, my book designer said, “I don’t know about some of the words you use in your memoir, such as ‘dungarees, polo shirts (today’s tee shirts), and Negroes.’ I want to keep these words in my book because they were the words used at the time I grew up. I explain them in parentheses, and none of the terms I use is derogatory. There is one place where a person made a derogatory statement about African Americans, and I used the beginning letter but would not write out the word. Using that word was forbidden in my household.
    Language evolves, but I think we need to use the language of the period in which we write.

    • Fran Morley says:

      That’s a good point, Libby. Old terms and words can be often entertaining, sometimes hurtful, or just dated, but if the words are from the times of which we write, they should be used—and adding information about the word or phrase helps future generations understand what’s being discussed. There have been many discussions among APH members about how to handle a person’s use of derogatory words: one of my clients wanted to include a paragraph about how use of the ‘N’ word was common among his family and friends when he was young, and how he used it then without thinking. But he wanted to make certain that his story also noted how times (and his own beliefs) had changed over the years. Words are powerful things!

  8. Imagine kid’s reaction when I mention that I used to wear my hair in a beehive or that I have a collection of 45’s.

    My favorite thing my grandmother used to say was, “I’m going to see a man about a horse.” It threw me for a loop until I finally realized that every time she said that she would head straight for the bathroom.

  9. Marty Walton says:

    Well, it seems to me quite apropos to wish all of you a very happy Lincoln’s birthday! That’s something that people growing up since the beginning of the 1970s wouldn’t know about — those two days we got off from school — February 12 and February 22.

    By the way, do go see the movie “Lincoln” if you haven’t had a chance to do that. I might even like to see it a second time!

    • Fran Morley says:

      Marty, I remember making paper cut-outs of Lincoln’s silhouette to paste on the windows of my 2nd or 3rd grade classroom. Most didn’t look a bit like him…. maybe it was supposed to be our introduction to abstract art. Changing holidays — that’s another good topic for a blog post!

  10. This post is the bee’s knees!

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