Collective Vocabulary

I was revisiting John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 recently, reading the essay “Frame of Reference”. In it, McPhee mentions collective vocabulary – basically, a shared understanding of the commonplace phrases of the age we live in.

Much of what is considered current in pop culture could be part of this generation’s collective vocabulary. But in doing theatre, and in my love of reading, I’ve discovered item after item that were considered popular at the time. Oklahoma and the popular Shave and a hair cut (tap tah-tah-tah tap): both rely on the phrase “two bits”. What we now call a quarter. 

Now, no one is chopping up a US quarter to make 12.5¢, nor did the US ever make a 1 bit piece (to my knowledge). From my understanding, it comes from the Mexican practice of cutting a peso into eight pieces (or bits). Since the Mexican peso and US dollar were practically equivalent, the phrase was adopted and became a part of the collective vocabulary.


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