What was that?
Folks are always remembering how it was, Back in the day. Sometimes the conversation in which the phrase occurs is among a set of people with shared experiences. They all know which day they're talking about. The phrase may have taken hold with a mid-1990s hip hop hit or with a movie a couple of years ago. But, however it swam to the popular surface of informal conversation , Back in the day never mentions what day we're talking about.
In fact, on the web, the happyrobot.net, frustrated by such chatty imprecision, offers a calculator that will tell you when your day was. You select your birth year, click submit, and a network of computers will narrow the search. For instance, for someone born in 1945, Back in the day was somewhere between 1965 and 1971. Sadly, that's as close as you get. I don't know why. Perhaps, for the purposes of casual conversation there may be great benefit in saying words whose meanings are unclear and consequently imprecise. Imprecision may be the vital lubricant of daily life.
Once, confronted repeatedly by the word patooti, I set out to discover what a patooti is. As in, Your sweet patooti. I thought it might be something related to a bippy, as in, You bet your bippy. Whatever a patooti is, you apparently use it the way you use a bippy, because the way I heard it was, You bet your sweet patooti. The speaker was often an uncle animated by spirits, perhaps at the gathering after a wake; or a tippled aunt giving herself up to joyful song at the reception following a wedding. It is a fun thing to say and to hear, but who knows what it means.
There are words one hears today, which have a flavorful ring to them and which we understand by their modern context. Booty, for example. Or mosh. And that's fine, but there are lots of old words that had a heyday 40 years ago or more and which could be exhumed for fun and profit today. Why should the vernacular be the exclusive domain of the living?
For instance, there was a sort of uncle by marriage who was forever calling young women tomatoes. That's one nice tomato, he'd say to me. And he didn't drink at all. Sometimes the same woman would be a tamale, in his view. It was a case where you knew what he was driving at but there was absolutely no map to follow, and you weren't sure it was a good idea to go along.
What was an uncle's tomato (or tamale) would probably be my grandmother's bold little thing. My grandmother, who often found her voice when that warbling sister of hers encouraged her, did not regard bold girls as admirable examples of liberated ambition. She thought they were dangerous, and she could spot one a mile off. They were inclined to make whoopee, she thought, which could get you into trouble. A flibbertigibbet could do the same thing, my grandmother believed.
She also knew frou-frou when she saw it. Here is a word whose possibilities are staggering. It's been associated suggestively with the behavior of rabbits, but the phrase that comes to mind is "frou-frouing femininity," from a 1905 edition of the English magazine Truth. Frou-frouing is everything my grandmother feared.
"Slang," John Moore writes in "You English Words" (J.B. Lippincott Company, 1961), "is a prodigal use of language; its bright bubbles effervesce out of man's invention, they take our fancy with their shimmer and sheen, but they are unstable, and very soon the changeable winds of fashion blow them away. The prigs and pedants who from time to time deplore some current piece of slang are wasting their breath; it is odds on any given word being forgotten in a season. But should a slang word by chance escape the common fate, then woe betide the pedant, for it will live to mock his memory."
How about golldurnit? That was big in my youth, as in golldurnit, where did that dent in the car come from. I am beginning to hear it around my house today, out of the mouths of kids. Golldurnit, not broccoli again.
The most prominent memory I have of that word employed in extremis was on the occasion of my sinking the family eight-foot pram by stumbling into it while my father sat in the stern seat.
"Golldurnit boy," he said as he sank slowly beneath the surface. "Look what you've done now." He had a tendency to nincompoop too, and that may have been employed on the same occasion.
Or, when you came home way later than you were supposed to, and crawling up the stairs you slowly became aware that someone was standing at the top. You began to explain, when you heard: Stop the mumbo-jumbo, I'll talk to you in the morning. Now there was a word we could use today.
And there are so many more. You will remember airy-fairy and mugwump, kowtow, kibosh, frabjous, gruntle, tomcatting, hanky-panky, harum-scarum, and hocus-pocus.
Most wonderful of all, though, is huggle. Here is a word fathers, mothers, but especially lovers ought to be using daily. It is also a word that serves, in a variety of disguises, many functions.
At heart, it is about affection. One is huggling when one is "imparadised in one another's arms," according to Milton. That's a condition which my grandmother would have taken note of, and not quietly mind you. "A-huggling they were bold-as-brass" one 16th century commentator wrote.
Which leads me finally to hugger-mugger, one of the best old words I've come across. It is useful enough to deserve a prominent place in anyone's everyday vocabulary. It means disorder or confusion, a natural outcome when one is huggling too often or too indiscriminately.