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

China’s artificial sun reaches fusion temperature: 100 million degrees

In a breakthrough for nuclear fusion research, scientists at China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor have produced temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion on Earth.

Credit: EAST Team
Surprising Science
  • The EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
  • Nuclear fusion could someday provide the planet with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.
  • Still, scientists have many other obstacles to pass before fusion technology becomes a viable energy source.
Keep reading Show less

Project 100,000: The Vietnam War's cruel and deadly experiment

Military recruits are supposed to be assessed to see whether they're fit for service. What happens when they're not?

Flickr user Tommy Truong79
Politics & Current Affairs
  • During the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara began a program called Project 100,000.
  • The program brought over 300,000 men to Vietnam who failed to meet minimum criteria for military service, both physically and mentally.
  • Project 100,000 recruits were killed in disproportionate numbers and fared worse after their military service than their civilian peers, making the program one of the biggest—and possibly cruelest—mistakes of the Vietnam War.
Keep reading Show less

Here's how diverse the 116th Congress is set to become

The 116th Congress is set to break records in term of diversity among its lawmakers, though those changes are coming almost entirely from Democrats.

(Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Women and nonwhite candidates made record gains in the 2018 midterms.
  • In total, almost half of the newly elected Congressional representatives are not white men.
  • Those changes come almost entirely from Democrats; Republican members-elect are all white men except for one woman.
Keep reading Show less