by Henry Lane Hull
At the outset I suspect this column will evoke nostalgia among older readers, bewilderment among middle-aged ones, and utter incredulity among those who are young. The topic is “the way things used to be,” and it consists of a random overview of matters that we formerly took for granted.
To begin, when I was growing up, advertisements for both new and used cars often contained the abbreviated “r & h” designation, which stood for “radio and heater.” Can one imagine today advertising that a car came equipped with a radio and heater? Of course not, but it was standard procedure a few decades ago. Cars and trucks also were judged by their horsepower, rather than by the cubic centimeters of their engines and other such modern descriptions.
To continue, driving down the road motels usually had signs out front indicating that all, or at least most rooms, had televisions. Still later, the signs boasted that the televisions were color, a pronouncement clearly aimed at travelers who would not settle any more for a plain old black-and-white TV.
High school and college students lived by the proclamations contained in Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and Dissertations. No student could get through to graduation without having had a copy on his or her desk, with Fowler’s Modern English Usage sitting next to it.
Later Turabian was superseded somewhat by other writing guides, but to those of us who were raised on her dictates, she remains the bedrock of writing style. I often have referred to Auntie, known also as Ellen Lee, who worked at the Rappahannock Record for many years, as being a stickler for correct grammar. She always would insist that a word or a phrase be in accordance with what Fowler had prescribed.
Today, all of that routine has been eclipsed by the Internet, spell-checking and on-line dictionaries, but I still adhere to Turabian and Fowler. To this day, Turabian remains the most read female American writer and from her place at the University of Chicago she did not write as much as she directed how others should compose and present their thoughts. She lived to be 94, and died before the dawn of new methods of listing the rules of composition came into being.
When sending me to the store, my parents would tell me to get a half-gallon of ice cream, an instruction I had no difficulty in remembering or obeying. In that era a half-gallon was a half-gallon, and honesty in advertising was assumed. Then the creameries and ice cream factories realized they could shrink the size of the container, maintain the same pricing and bamboozle the customers into thinking they still were getting a half-gallon, in lieu of the newly packaged 48 ounces. I still catch myself tending to refer to the container as a “half-gallon.”
The restaurant industry also was not without its interesting foibles. Menus proudly announced that prime rib, strip sirloin or other beef entrees came “with au jus,” meaning that they were served with the juices resultant from the cooking process. The problem therein came in the designation, for as every beginning French 101 student learns, “au jus” means “with juice,” thus to say “with au jus” is to say “with with juice.” Those chefs should have stuck to cooking and not assumed linguistic expertise in menu composition.
In 1958, when first-class postage went from three to four cents per ounce, the public outcry was profound. How could the economy survive such inflation? Later when the cost went above 10 cents, a service in New York City offered to deliver letters to addresses within Manhattan for 10 cents apiece, but a court ruled that the postal monopoly could not be challenged and the process came to an end. The forthcoming postage increase is to be five cents per ounce, more than the stamp itself cost in the 1950s.
If these reflections have brought forth nostalgia, bewilderment and incredulity, I only can say, “I share in those reactions.”