Real Estate Retrotalk

Real estate is as cutting edge as it is traditional, and the same thing goes for the English language. Just think: When you’re calling a prospect on your cell, you might “dial” in their number, just as you might also “hang up” when you’re finished. But is there a rotary dial on your phone or a cradle within which you can hang the mouthpiece of your telephone? Nope.

Credit: Kim B/thepeachmartini

As a word nerd, I love these contradictions that flavor our everyday speech. In I Love it When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), author Ralph Keyes calls these contradictions “retroterms,” or “verbal artifacts that hang around in our national conversation long after the topic they refer to has galloped into the sunset.”

I Love it When You Talk Retro is a fascinating book by all accounts, and worth a read just for fun. But for Book Scan readers, I pulled out a few of the more real estate-related items for which you might want to know the origins.

Ever encountered an actual skeleton in the closet of one of your listings? Probably not nowadays, but in nineteenth-century England you may have. In the beginning of the era of modern medicine, doctors found that dissecting corpses was a very good way to learn about the human body and disease. However, doing so was illegal. So doctors had to hide the results of such experiments in closets, for fear of punishment. Now, of course, a “skeleton in the closet” is more likely to refer to family secrets than any frightening open house surprises.

Some of the best deals are struck on the front porch. Yet, back when political candidates William McKinley, Benjamin Harrison, and Warren G. Harding used front porch campaigns to connect with fellow citizens, they were derided as lazy by opponents who crisscrossed the country for votes. It was not particularly impressive to give speeches from one’s own front porch, but effectiveness is another measure altogether. Though each front porch campaigner experienced success from their efforts, the phrase is still used as a way to describe lethargic efforts to win people over. Or maybe it’s just a soft sell technique? You decide.

Next time you’re showing off the backyard of an early 20th-century home, don’t offer to take house hunters on a trip to the woodshed. Back when these sheds were used to hold fuel, they were also reportedly a good place for parents to discipline their children. To this day, a trip to the woodshed often refers to being dressed down or punished. Keyes notes that the euphemism has even been turned into a noun, as in “s/he was woodshedded.”

You’d better hope your farm area doesn’t include a Potemkin village, or else you’ll have a lot of explaining to do once the facade recedes. See, this descriptor comes from a tour Russia’s Catherine the Great made of Ukraine in 1787, shortly after her country annexed the area. The Ukrainian governor was so eager to please that he created structures specifically for the event and decorated the place to give it a little more curb appeal. Catherine’s adviser, one Prince Potemkin, joked that perhaps the entire village had been constructed merely to impress the throne. Thereafter, any fake construction created to impress could be referred to as a Potemkin village, or Potemkin-like.

Finally, next time a picky city slicker derides one of your listings as located “out in the boonies,” you can take a moment to educate them on the meaning of the term. A shortened version of “boondocks,” this colorful word comes from U.S. soldiers fighting in the Philippine–American War during the turn of the 20th Century. The Tagalog language’s word for hinterlands was “bundok,” which Americans picked up and brought home.

Meg White

Meg White is the managing editor for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]

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