Words in the News

Party on, film catchphrases!

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Written by Stan Carey

Some films are so popular and linguistically memorable that their lines enter widespread use. It can happen with a line in a classic film, such as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ (Gone with the Wind), ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ (The Wizard of Oz), ‘I’ll be back’ (The Terminator), and ‘Play it again, Sam’ (Casablanca – even though that line is never used in the film). Sometimes it’s not a catchphrase but a new word that enters the language indirectly: gaslight from the 1944 film is a good example.

Another common source of film catchphrases is blockbusters whose target audience is young people, especially teenage girls and young women, because they’re linguistic trendsetters. Heathers (1988) fits the bill: a dark satire of American high-school life filled with one-liners begging to be quoted in everyday life. The less morbid Clueless (1995) later helped popularize expressions like As if! and Whatever! ‘Stay black’ is one of the more family-friendly catchphrases from Spike Lee’s brilliant drama Do the Right Thing, while teen comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (and the characters’ Bogus Journey) boosted words like excellent, dude, heinous, and totally in the pop lexicon.



More recent is the supremely quotable 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls. One of its most famous lines is a knowing remark about trying to popularize slang: ‘Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!’ This led to countless variations on Stop trying to make X happen, including a doggy in-joke by the Obama White House, no less.

Another film that proved linguistically influential is the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World. Its Canadian star and co-writer, Mike Myers, has a good ear for slang and propelled Schwing!, Party on!, and Not! (to contradict something you’ve said) into the spotlight. Myers’s later Austin Powers proved similarly effective. In an interview with culture website Vulture, he said that having parents with a different accent from him (they grew up in Liverpool) meant he got ‘very attuned to how different people talk and the various ways that things are said’.

People often adopt, or adapt, lines and phrases from films (and from TV, video games, etc.) that never become mainstream catchphrases but serve the same role among smaller circles of families or friends. For example, my brother borrowed the lines ‘It wasn’t me! It was the one-armed man!’ from comedy hit The Mask, a reference to the chase saga The Fugitive. With repetition, it spread to other members of the family. I bet you’ll all be using it soon. Not.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

4 Comments

  • Great post Stan. Thanks. Talking of the family thing, takes me right back to when my son Tom was a toddler. Among the children’s books we read with him all the time, was one where a penguin takes a trip to the park and makes new friends. In a moment of petulance and awkwardness, said penguin is described as beginning to ‘wave his flippers about’. Tom is now 22 but when he or anyone in the family makes a fuss about nothing, to this day we are described as ‘waving our flippers about’!

  • Thanks, Kerry. I like the anecdote! It’s great how these phrases can take hold unpredictably and last decades. Sometimes I think every family should have an archivist keeping track of its idiosyncratic lore and language.

  • Sometimes I reference an action in a movie. I’ll reference the scene in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” where Roger drinks alcohol and explodes to say that a person “goes all Roger Rabbit”.

  • That’s fun too, especially if the scene is familiar enough that you don’t have to explain it. I love Who Framed Roger Rabbit and must watch it again.

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