It’s Official

I have become my mother: I’ve started to use idioms that young people do not understand.

When my parents moved into an assisted-living facility, my mother and some of her tablemates played an ongoing game with the teenaged servers in the dining room.  It started innocently enough with the inadvertent use of an idiom that the servers had never heard, and then the old people got right into it, trying to stump the kids. With a sixty-year gap, it wasn’t hard.

This week, someone somewhere-south-of-forty encountered my advice on selecting team members. I had been aiming for “memorable but concise”; instead I hit “obscure.”

“Huh?” she said. “What’s a reluctant dragon?”

Your Dictionary says it this way:

noun: A reluctant person; someone unwilling to get involved.

In context, I’d say it this way:

noun: A person assigned unwillingly to a team or a task. The chance they will exert the effort required is somewhere between slim and nil, and Slim just left town.

I might have let it go, but I had just finished reading an article on artificial intelligence (AI), which identified the roots of the current unease thusly:

For my entire life, and a bit more, there have been two essential features of the basic landscape:

1. American hegemony over much of the world, and relative physical safety for Americans.

2. An absence of truly radical technological change. Unless you are very old, old enough to have taken in some of WWII, or were drafted into Korea or Vietnam, probably those features describe your entire life as well.
[emphasis added]

In other words, virtually all of us have been living in a bubble “outside of history.”

Just a minute. Never mind about the possible existential threat from AI: When did “very old” come to mean “old enough to have been drafted into Vietnam”? I, ahem, turned 18 in 1970, when American males of that age were still being drafted into Vietnam or were dodging across the border to avoid/evade that draft.

So here I am: doing things that I remember my mother doing when she was old–though not yet very old, thank you very much–and encountering snippy and unfounded comments about the age of my cohort in an otherwise sensible article.

While we’re on the topic of the challenge of living in “moving history,” as the author puts it, let me just note these examples:

  • My grandmother was born in 1890 and died in 1975 at age 85. She went from horse-&-buggy transport as the norm, to watching men land on the Moon, without a complaint.
  • My parents were both born in 1922; Dad died in 2010 (age 88) and Mom died in 2017 (age 95). In the last decades of their life they embraced computers and the internet: email, genealogical programs, word processing, and spreadsheets. Mom started publishing a blog when she was 89.

Are you finding it hard to adapt to “truly radical technological change”? Tough. Get on with it, just as folks before you have done. I’d say, “Suck it up, Buttercup” but I expect that phrase is archaic now, too. What can you expect when you’re dealing with the very old?

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18 Responses to It’s Official

  1. Heather Taschuk says:

    I really enjoyed this article Isabel. You sum things up very well!

  2. Marion Neiman says:

    … I had not heard the term “reluctant dragons” either, and I’m a few years older than you, but not yet very old. However I certainly felt something when I read “ In other words, virtually all of us have been living in a bubble “outside of history.” though. Very true. We don’t know how lucky we’ve been.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – Yes, it does seem that our local cohort lucked out, missing the Great Depression and WWII, and benefiting from the largest/longest continuous period of economic prosperity. Whether that was the start of something good or just a blip remains to be seen. (As for being very old, I’m not sure my mother ever felt like that, even though she lived to be 95.)

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    The comment I posted to “It’s Formal” should have been posted to this page instead.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – And I would move it if I could post under your name, but let’s not go down that path!

  4. barbara carlson says:

    Digital tech is a blessing and a curse. Maybe the trick is to control (ha-ha, too late IMO) it wisely before it dismisses us. The “Godfather of AI,” Geoffrey Hinton, who quit Google to warn of self-generated AI, said, “It is hard to see how you can prevent the bad actors from using it for bad things,” he said. He also said he regrets his life’s work,” and,“I think it’s quite conceivable that humanity is just a passing phase in the evolution of intelligence.”

    That wouldn’t be hard: people seem to be getting dumber but with more hubris and greed — not a good combination.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Indeed, it’s a confusion right now and not likely to get better for a while. I don’t know whether we’ll get through this latest leap forward.

  5. Judith Umbach says:

    I had never heard of “reluctant dragons”, either. Probably regional-speak. However, I am familiar with using words and phrases people under forty (!) don’t understand. “Bailiwick” was a recent one, translated eventually into “wheelhouse”. Also, I told someone I was envious, and he asked if that meant jealous – a stumper of a question at the time. Having consulted the dictionary (online), the two words can be synonyms, although jealous has additional meanings. I find it all quite stimulating.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Apparently it (the dragons, I mean) were in an 1898 story and a Disney film in 1941. Not sure where Mom picked it up (assuming my memory of that is right). It *is* fun having language conversations. A niece never understood my thing about bring/take until she started studying conversational French, where the same point-of-view distinction is (apparently) still going strong.

  6. Tom Watson says:

    Jumping Jehosaphat, I never did hear before about “reluctant dragons.”

    But as my mother would say, “If you go there and fall down, don’t come running to me!”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – And these days I don’t suppose you’d get anything other than a blank stare with “jumping Jehosaphat.”

  7. Tom Watson says:

    Sorry…I didn’t finish my mother’s quote: “If you go there, fall down and break a leg, don’t come running to me.”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Hahaha. Yes, that makes more sense. Sort of. Was she from The Rock, by any chance?

  8. Tom Watson says:

    Nope. Ontario grown.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – 🙂 I expect someone has made an academic career of cataloguing regional idioms, even in Canada, but it hasn’t come to my attention.

  9. If “humanity is just a passing phase in the evolution of intelligence,” what (since he dismisses humans) does he imagine will continue to evolve in intelligence?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I think he’s talking about AI that is programmed to learn, learning how to build better AI. Maybe.

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