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.Email this Post