When a TV weather forecaster described a November blast of cold air as "winter's calling card," I wondered how many viewers would know that "calling card" originally referred to a card left at a home to indicate a visitor had stopped by while the residents were away.
This gracious practice faded away, along with the buggy whip and the gramophone, during the early 20th century, but the phrase "calling card" survives as a general term for any sign that a person or thing has been present, left a mark and might return.
Perhaps because of this implied reappearance, "calling card" often bears a menacing tone — a polite but sinister equivalent of the Terminator's "I'll be back!" In the final scene of the 2005 movie "Batman Begins," for instance, the Joker, described as having "a taste for theatrics," quite literally leaves his "calling card" — a joker playing card.
Likewise, the weather forecaster's reference to "winter's calling card" meant that Old Man Winter had briefly visited and would soon be knocking on our door again. Brrrr.
"Calling card" is just one of many old-time terms we still use, even though their musty origins are mostly forgotten.
The telegraph dotted its last dash decades ago, but we still use the verb "telegraph" when someone drops a hint or coded sign, especially unknowingly, of a future event. Thus a boxer might inadvertently telegraph punches, or a movie script might unwittingly telegraph — spoiler alert! — an upcoming plot twist.
Likewise, few of us are still using a washboard (a device with a corrugated surface) to scrub clothes, or a wringer to squeeze moisture from them, yet we still refer to a rippled abdomen or a dirt road with ridgelike bumps as a "washboard," and we still describe a harrowing experience as being "put through the wringer."
And speaking of "harrowing," that term is derived from "harrow," a rake with spikes and teeth used for pulverizing the soil, so a "harrowing experience" feels like being raked with a harrow. Ouch.
Likewise, rotary phones, wall phones and pay phones are largely obsolete, yet we continue to "dial" and "hang up" the phone. But"to drop a dime on someone" still means to inform on a person, because, during the pre-cellphone era, a snitch would deposit a dime into a pay phone to make an incriminating call.
And some of our terms go way back. When is the last time you pictured an independent writer for hire roaming around freely like an unaffiliated knight with a lance?
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.