How old school is "old school?"

My friend Tom Wayne, co-owner of Prospero's Books in Kansas City, recently mentioned that he had come across the phrase "old school" in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, written and published serially from 1852-1853.


Curious, I looked it up. Dickens actually uses the phrase four times throughout the book and is kind enough to offer a definition of the term as it was used in his time. The first mention comes in Chapter Two, as Dickens describes a silent and secretive solicitor named Mr. Tulkinghorn.

The old gentleman is rusty to look at, but is reputed to have made good thrift out of aristocratic marriage settlements and aristocratic wills, and to be very rich. He is surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences; of which he is known to be the silent depository. There are noble Mausoleums rooted for centuries in retired glades of parks, among the growing timber and the fern, which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn. He is of what is called the old school—a phrase generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young—and wears knee breeches tied with ribbons, and gaiters or stockings.

Dickens later uses the phrase “An Oyster of the old school, who no one can open” to refer to the taciturn attorney.

So how far back does it go? How old school is old school?

My dictionaries aren't much help for dates though The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it is "used, usually approvingly, to refer to someone or something that is old-fashioned or traditional." That’s a pretty fair description. My 1969 Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate gives us “adherents to the policies and practices of the past” which really doesn’t cover the cool factor. People don’t talk about old school hip-hop because it sucked. They call it old school because it was awesome.

A trip to Google Books provides some clues as to age. The phrase was apparently in common usage a decade before Dickens employed it and one wag even published a book in London in 1840, Sketches of Country Life and Country Matters, and signed himself  “One of the Old School."

Washington Irving used the phrase freely - it shows up 13 times in The Complete Works of Washington Irving, published in 1834, and one of the stories in which it appears was first published in 1821. Irving uses it much in the same way we do now and refers to a retired general as a “blade of the old school.”

Going back even further we have Federalist author Joseph Dennie. Dennie attacked Jeffersonian democratic ideals so fiercely in an article published in 1803 he was actually tried for sedition. Jefferson was president at the time and Dennie's use of a nom de plume did not help him escape trial though he was eventually acquitted. His pseudonym?

Oliver Oldschool.

Beyond 1800 the trail gets colder. The phrase pops up here and there but generally in reference to an adherent of a previously popular style of art or medicine. But I think it's safe to say that use of the phrase "old school" is indeed, itself, old school.

Photo by Dullhunk via Flickr/Creative Commons

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less