Afternoon InquisitionRandom Asides

AI: Old School is so Old School

Being someone who works with language everyday, it shames me to admit that I have a hard time knowing when slang phrases become trendy and then when they go out of style. I have a hard time knowing when clothes become trendy and when they go out of style, too, but that’s almost excusable, since I prefer to be naked at every opportunity.

But words are a different story. I should know when a cool slang phrase goes out of style. I should, but I don’t. Hell, up until about a week ago, I was still saying “izzle” in every sentence, because I thought it was still cool. Imagine my embarrassment when I found out it wasn’t.

But I’m thinking we should retire the phrase “old school”. The other day, a friend of mine was telling a story about a playground hoops game he was in, and he referred to one of the playground regulars as an “old school basketball player”.

My initial thought was that the person to whom he was referring must possess an enormous afro and possibly some Converse All-Stars, but then I thought that’s not really old school any more. Big afros are actually new school. Actually, big afros are new old school, in that they are old school, but recent old school, since they saw a resurgence from the actual old school days a couple of years ago, but have since fallen out of style again, making them once more old school, but in a new frame of reference . . . . . . Or words to that effect.

But my second thought was a little different. I became convinced that the phrase “old school” was . . . well, old school. I think that saying “old school” has been played out, and now it no longer belongs in the general lexicon.

I mean, consider the meaning of “old school”. It refers simply to an earlier time in a specific history. Which, if there is not much total time in the overall history, it’s easy to at least get a ballpark idea about what “old school” means. But suppose an enormous block of time constitutes that earlier time or that history. The term “old school” becomes even less specific, and therefore it’s meaning becomes more vague and perhaps even completely obscured.

For example, if someone says, “She’s an old school skateboarder”, you’d know her style and skill level are probably similar to that perfected by the Dog Town boys and even Tony Hawk in the 1970s and 80s. The history of skateboarding innovation is not that extensive, and one can find understanding in that context without too much trouble.

But suppose someone says, “She’s an old school prostitute”. What does that mean? What does it mean to be an old school prostitute? Does she have a red light over her cave? Does she service pharaohs at their bachelor parties? Did she give syphilis to the Knights Templar? Is she French and really smelly? The history of prostitution is too vast, and it’s difficult to derive any valuable meaning from the phrase in that context.

So why don’t we retire “old school”? Or at the very least, put a hundred year limit on the time frames we refer to when we use it, so that any ‘school’ we may be discussing can reach back no further than a hundred years. I don’t want to have to do research just to follow a conversation.

So . . .  

“Old school” yes or no? What other trendy slang expressions should we eliminate? Do you have any slang expressions to introduce?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Part of the issue it trying to say it to someone you don’t have a common frame of refrence with. Out skiing on Xmas eve a couple cute guys skiied past and my mom instantly commented on the equipment they were using, “Very old school.” I knew what she meant without even seeing the skis. They were wooden, 3 pins, with the bamboo poles and big baskets. But that is because we have a common frame of reference.

    Basically, I think you shouldn’t use it with anyone you don’t know well enough to mock. That way if you get it wrong much fun can be had anyway.

  2. This:

    Actually, big afros are new old school, in that they are old school, but recent old school, since they saw a resurgence from the actual old school days a couple of years ago, but have since fallen out of style again, making them once more old school, but in a new frame of reference . . . . . . Or words to that effect.

    brings to mind this:

    The U.S.’s exponentially decreasing retro gap is in danger of achieving parity with real-time historical events…

  3. In skateboarding, Old School refers more to attitude than skill set or ability. If you skate Burnside with big soft wheels, you are old school. If you skate on small hard wheels and prefer indoor ramps, you are probably not old school. Thrashers riding those giant boards with huge wheels that are good for transportation and not tricks are old school, even though the boards themselves are recently popular.

    “Old School” doesn’t refer to a style as much as a point of focus. An “Old School” ball player is one who plays a physical style with a strong focus on core fundamentals and work ethic with a lack of frills. Tim Duncan is old school. Lebron James is not old school.

    “Old School” football is generally synonomous with smash mouth football, focus on the run, lack of trick plays. The 2001 Patriots were old school, and the 2008 Steelers were old school, the 2008 Cardinals were not old school, because Kurt Warner is not old school. He’s an improvisario. Ben Rothelesburger is not old school, but he runs an old school offense. Tom Brady IS old school, but the Patriots offense is a little too innovative to be old school. The Statue of Liberty play is old, but it isn’t old school.

    An old school prostitute would, I suppose, focus on the fundamentals. What that actually entails is left as an exercise for the reader.

  4. @sethmanapio:

    In skateboarding, Old School refers more to attitude than skill set or ability.

    No. Old school in skateboarding refers to skill set more than attitude.

    Old old school in skateboarding refers to handstands, 360s, slolom runs, and toe stands on a flat surface, a la Bruce Logan.

    Old school in skateboarding refers to a hand on the ground when carving (much like a hand in a wave in surfing), verticle riding above sharp transitions with coping, like in swimming pools and man-made bowls, a la Tony Alva and Shogo Kubo.

    Vert tricks got a lot better with Tony Hawks generation, and they also introduced innovation in street skating. And I’d say they are on the edge of old school.

    But I’ve been skating since the 70s, and like surfers, the attitude of the skaters (in general) has remained pretty much the same.

  5. As to retiring idioms of mere questionable clarity, I am indifferent, and would much rather do away with something which is universally understood but bigoted, eg. “that’s so gay”. Incidentally: Hello skepchick!

  6. Can’t define or term limit an idiom from the outside. It is either relevant to the particular people using it when speaking to each other or it’s not.

    I am still not sure why baggy sagging went on for so long, or why it was added to, but not replaced by skinny sagging. Twenty years~!

  7. @Sam preferring to be naked: in Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers has one of the characters comment on the attire of someone who has gone nudist that there seems to be a correlation between rejecting clothes and having no fashion sense.

    As for slang, I’m behind the curve, so by the time I pick it up, it’s passé. But I figure that I can use a term for as long as I still like it and stop using it when it seems too old school old hat within my own value system rather than that of the larger culture.

  8. In my opinion, “old school” would refer to the way your parents did stuff. I.e. anything that’s been around long enough that kids born when it was “the thing” are now old enough to talk about it and refer to it as “old school”.

    So at least a 15 year gap.

    For example, nothing concerning computers or the internet could be referred to as “old school” unless it’s been around since AT LEAST the early nineties.

    E.g. Atari, space invaders and a 28k internet-modem are “old school”, but the Playstation 1 is not.

    In fact, just assume that any fad a 15 year old refers to as old school even though they’ve been a part of it themselves is just a victim of the old-school-fad.

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