Two Bits

Two bits,
Four bits,
Six bits, a dollar,
All for (insert school here)
Stand up and holler.

That, at least, was the cheer at basketball games back in high school. As a cheer, it probably is no more. Not because it is simple, but because no one seems to know what two bits is; 25 cents it is, a quarter of a dollar. A bit, by the way is an eighth of a dollar, or 12.5 cents. The origin of bit comes from the practice of cutting the Spanish dollar (peso) into eight radial pieces to make change. But I digress. I am not certain when the term two bits went out of common parlance. In 1988, for example, the film Who Killed Roger Rabbit featured the gambit that Toons couldn’t resist completing the jingle Shave and a haircut, two bits. The jingle normally was expressed in the familiar knock dah dahdah dah dah, dah dah. When looking for a Toon in hiding, one had but to rap out the first five knocks of the sequence; the urge to complete the sequence was just too strong and so they gave themselves away. The present generation, even though they are familiar with the film and know the jingle draw a blank when asked what two bits is. A couple of individuals ventured “50 cents?” Close, but no cigar.

It turns out that this is an age thing, knowing that two bits is a quarter. My vocabulary, it seems is becoming archaic. For some time now, I have had to turn to members of a younger generation for the meaning of a term or phrase. This is becoming especially true as the current generation continues to coin an abbreviated language suitable for text messaging.

At one time, when I was a supervisor, some of the people working for me made a wager. I became aware of it as I heard them talking among themselves. “I bet you five dollars he knows,” was the wager. “I’ll take that bet,” was the reply. That piqued my interest. What did I know or not know that was worth five dollars? A short time later, as I left my office, the question was posed. Did I know what boustrophedon meant? “As the ox plows,” I replied, “back and forth. It describes a style of writing which, line by line, goes back and forth across the page.” There was a high five as someone said “told ya.”

This incident came to mind when my wife, Judi, told me that I should have explained some terms in an earlier story. “No one understands who Central (as in Hello Central) is anymore,” she said, “and no one knows that FHS stands for Fremont High School. You should have footnoted that or expanded on that in your writing.” A fair criticism, as far as FHS goes. But surely, Central is still a recognized term. Turns out, it is an another age thing. Those who remember dial phones and party lines mostly remember that Central was the term for operator. Those born and raised in the digital age haven’t a clue.

Every generation has jargon which is all its own, terms which enter the mainstream for a time before passing out of memory. Terms like Hep Cat and Bobby Soxer are found only in books written when the terms were current. I haven’t checked recently, but another perfectly good word, raunchy, appears to have had its run.

Some terms, like stewardess seem to have fallen victim to political correctness. Given the direction in-flight service is taking this is perhaps a good thing and, as the airlines begin to sell more of what used to be free, perhaps flight attendant should also be scrapped and replaced with flight clerk. I find the tendency, however, to drop the term actress puzzling. For that matter, I have trouble understanding why words with feminine endings have now taken on a pejorative meaning. Social scientists of a future age, when doing gender studies are going to thank us for that trend, especially as names, particularly for girls, cross gender lines.

Well, see you later alligator.