This is not your mother’s language column

An alien who read a lot of news and features reports from the past year could not be blamed for concluding that Americans must really hate their parents and grandparents, or at least reject a lot of what they liked.

There’s the redecorated restaurant not suitable for Dad. “We wanted to make it look more upscale, with a little more flash” according to an executive. “We just wanted to get away from your father’s steakhouse.”

There’s the “boozy shake” at another restaurant, described as “not your mother’s milkshake.”

There’s the discussion of whether the remake of Ben-Hur was playing with fire. “Any way you look at it, this is not your grandfather’s chariot race,” it said. (As the box office seems to attest, for many, Charlton Heston has to be pried from their cold, dead hands.)

Sign up for CJR's daily email

And there’s the cookbook whose recipes include one described asnot your grandmother’s classic chocolate chip cookie.”

Leave both parents at home when you visit one restaurant, one reviewer suggests.

“Don’t expect to find your father’s burger joint here,” the lead said, followed by a photo caption warning that “These are not your mother’s deviled eggs.”

And abandon two generations at once if you want to play ball on one renovated field, which is “not your grandfather’s or even your father’s infield,” or if you want to be a Brownie, because “The modern Girl Scouts of the USA are not your grandmother’s Girl Scouts—and often not even your mother’s.”

If you’re tired of reading “It’s not your (fill in the blank),” it’s because the phrase is a cliché.

Worse than that, it’s an insult.

We can probably blame Oldsmobile for this intergenerational dissing. It started using the tagline “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” during the Seoul Olympics in 1988, and the phrase “not your father’s…” does not appear in Nexis any earlier.

The phrase has not only deeply inserted itself into journalism, it’s also burrowed deeper into popular culture and commercialism. There’s the Not Your Mother’s Book advice series and Not Your Mother’s cookbook series, and “Not Your Mother’s Laundry.” (Services that begin “Not Your Mother’s…” seem popular on college campuses.) There’s the Not Your Father’s Charity blog, and a whole line of “Not Your Father’s” beers because, apparently, no father would be caught dead drinking an adult beverage called Root Beer, Vanilla Cream Ale, or Ginger Ale.

But that kind of branding can also get you in trouble: Sprecher Brewery’s tagline “Not Your Grandaddy’s Root Beer … Or Maybe It Is” led to a suit from the people who produce “Not Your Father’s” brews, who claimed that Sprecher was infringing on its trademark.

That’s not the only danger from using this cliché. There is sexism as well. News organizations recently applied “not your father’s” (or grandfather’s) to basement workshops, reverse mortgages, cars, beers, guns, and several sports. “Not your mother’s” (or grandmother’s) was applied to quilts, oatmeal cookies, flea markets, lemonade, joint replacement, and crudités. Get it?

Using it without thinking poses danger. One news report quoted a Cleveland attraction’s executive as saying that the Republican convention “gives us a mass opportunity to show these people that it’s not your father’s Cleveland, it’s not your father’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” But because eligibility for induction in the Hall begins “25 years after the release of their first record,” it is, quite literally, your father’s, and your mother’s, and beyond, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

For Oldsmobile, as Slate said, the problems with “this is not your father’s” were: “a) It said what Olds wasn’t, but not what it was, and b) it more or less informed a generation of Olds loyalists that their choice was now considered an embarrassment.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

And that tagline, some people believe, was a big factor in there no longer being an Oldsmobile.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.