20 Everyday Words and Phrases That Were Invented Onscreen
It's shocking how much of your vocabulary came from a television.
Who says you can’t learn something from TV and movies? Our entertainment is responsible for shaping culture, providing role models and villains, and driving fashion changes. But it’s also a source for a surprising range of new words and expressions that might have seemed a funny punchline or goofy twist on a familiar idea when it was uttered on screen, but proved surprisingly durable. Here are 20 words and phrases ranging from slang words, to what now seem like expressions we’ve always said. And for more TV-inspired laughs, check out The 30 Funniest Jokes In TV Commercials.
Though this originally referred to the biblical figure who was king of the land of Shinar, we know it today as meaning “idiot” or “fool” (with apologies to the Shinar royalty). The modern use of the word was introduced by that trickster Bugs Bunny, who in 1932 used it to insult his antagonist Elmer Fudd, exclaiming “What a nimrod!” And for more memorable insults, check out 30 Times Famous People Dissed Other Celebs In Hilarious Ways.
A great word to convey that you’re both crazy and drunk—or high and drunk—this word pops up in plenty of rap songs. So it might surprise you to learn that maybe the whitest man in the world introduced it to the world.
“Crunk” was first used on Late Night with Conan O’Brien for a sketch where it was supposed to serve as a “make-believe curse word so we could get the same laughs that curses get on television without having to deal with censors,” as the show’s writer Robert Smigel described. And for more on late night shows, check out The 30 Most Outrageous Late-Night TV Moments Ever.
This word, which has come to mean a kind of psychological manipulation that causes another person to doubt their own sanity, first got this modern meaning from a 1944 film of the same name. The movie stars Ingrid Bergman as a woman who sees things in an old spooky house—including gaslights dimming themselves. The husband convinces her that she’s crazy…or, rather, gaslights her. And for more on language, check out these 40 Words People Over 40 Wouldn’t Understand.
Another old word that got a whole new meaning thanks to a movie of its same name. “To catfish” had meant to try and catch some whiskered bottom-feeders until this documentary about a guy being misled about the identity of the person he is chatting with online gave it modern meaning. In case you were worried about getting catfished, check out these 10 Celebrities Who Are On Tinder.
The perfect way to say “oops” or “ouch,” of course, coined by Homer Simpson on Matt Groening‘s The Simpsons. It goes all the way back to when it was just animated shorts as part of the Tracey Ullman Show, in the 1988 short “Punching Bag.”
The voice of Homer, Dan Castellaneta, used it as a way to suggest the curse word version of “darn” without actually uttering any profanity. The rest is history. And for more great humor, check out the 30 Funniest Sitcoms Of All Time.
Though this word, expecting a general feeling of being unimpressed with something, has roots in Yiddish and a version of it was used by poet W.H. Auden, it was really The Simpsons that popularized it as the modern term we use it for today, in 1994’s “Sideshow Bob Roberts” episode.
According to John Swartzwelder, the Simpsons writer who included it in the show script, “I had originally heard the word from an advertising writer named Howie Krakow back in 1970 or 1971 who insisted it was the funniest word in the world.”
This is not used as often as it once was, but Merriam-Webster defines it as “used euphemistically for an unspecified part of the body; generally understood as equivalent to [rear end],” as in, “you bet your sweet bippy.” It was first used on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
The term is not new—deals have been made and broken for centuries—but using it specifically in reference to relationships is surprisingly recent. 30 Rock popularized it in this context, with its show-within-a-show “Dealbreakers!” And if you’re looking for some great relationship advice, don’t miss the 30 Great Icebreakers That Are Always Hilarious.
Meaning “to increase in size,” this was a silly fake word used originally in an episode of The Simpsons (perhaps the greatest source of neologisms since Shakespeare) that has since found its way into academic journals and the Oxford English Dictionary.
The Full Monty
This surprise indie hit about middle-aged men making money as strippers redefined this British term for “the whole thing”: stripping until you’re naked.
The Perfect Storm
Sure, it was a wildly popular book, but the George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg disaster film adaptation spread far and wide a new, more dramatic cliché to replace the cliché of “Murphy’s Law”—a term for describing a situation where everything that can go wrong is going wrong.
A funnier way of saying “the perfect storm,” though a term more popular in the UK than the US, it is a portmanteau combining “omni” (as in all) and “shambles” (as in a disaster). When everything is going sideways, its “omnishambles,” and the show that created it is political satire The Thick of It where foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker is insulting a character for doing everything wrong he says, “You’re an omnishambles, that’s what you are. You’re like that coffee machine, you know: from bean to cup, you screw up.” Thanks to British MP Ed Miliband using it to criticize the government budget and “Romneyshambles” becoming the way to summarize candidate Mitt Romney’s awkward visit to the UK during the 2012 election, it was selected as Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2012.
This corny Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman movie popularized the idea of making a list of must-do items “before you kick the bucket.” Slate found the term used in a 2004 novel, but it was the movie that made it popular. And yes, it persists today. We use it. Just see the 40 Best Bucket-List Experiences for People Over 40.
Technically this phrase was out in the world, in legal documents and other areas, but after the 1993 film of the title, it came to mean a very specific thing: paying someone to sleep with their spouse.
This term, referring to the being stuck as friends rather than romantic partners, was popularized on Friends. In the 1994 episode “The One with the Blackout,” the character of Ross is described as being “mayor of the friend zone.”
You may have used this to describe being “on the same page” with someone or fully understanding their position on a topic. But while this is a handy metaphor for business and relationships, it originated as a literal psychic connection between individuals on Star Trek where consciousness is shared.
Nope, this one didn’t originate on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though that show helped return it to popularity for a younger generation. It actually first appeared on the 1950s kids show Howdy Doody. That show’s writer, Eddie Kean, came up with it as a greeting Native American character named Chief Thunderthud. In the 1960s, it was adopted by surfers and remained in the national vocabulary since.
As in, “complain much?” This use of the word first appeared on Saturday Night Live. But it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer that helped popularize the use of this way of saying it. The Oxford English Dictionary cites this quote from the show: “A stranger, walking the other way, bumps into Buffy, doesn’t stop… Buffy. Excuse much! Not rude or anything.”
This one actually was invented by Buffy. Using “Google” as a verb, as in “google him to find out,” was done on Buffy episode “Help” in 2002. The character of Willow asks Buffy, “Have you googled her yet?” to which Xander says, “She’s 17!” requiring Willow to explain, “It’s a search engine.” It was just a few months later that the American Dialect Society selected “to google” as 2002’s most useful new word.
Another mainly British word, meaning “a foolish, inept, or contemptible person,” as the OED puts it, originated in the show Only Fools and Horses where the character of Del Boy says “Rodney! I didn’t mean drive off! What a plonker!” For more on British words, check out these 9 Words the British Royals Never Say.
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