Friday, 17 June 2005

Words From Pop Culture

It should come as no surprise that many of our popular words and phrases have emerged from popular culture. Books, plays, comic strips, television, and movies have all had their impact on the English language over the years. In fact, this phenomenon occurred even before the existence of mass media. William Shakespeare coined a number of phrases still popular in the English language. He coined the phrase "bated breath" in The Merchant of Venice all the way back in 1596, "Shall I bend low and, in a bondsman's key, / With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness, / Say this ..." He also created the phrase "green eyed monster" with reference to jealousy in Othello, "O beware jealousy, it is the green eyed monster." The phrase "sea change" can also be credited Shakespeare. He uses it in The Tempest, "Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange." Not a few of the names of Shakespeare's characters have made it into the English language: Dogberry (for an overzealous public servant), Romeo (for a woman's suitor), and Shylock (for a ruthless lender of money).

Of course, Shakespeare was not the only playwright to have an impact on the English language. The word robot does not come from any science fiction novel, but from the stage. Karl Capek coined the word for the mechanical servants in his play R.U.R. ("Rossum's Universal Robots"), which debuted in 1920. He took the word from Czech robota "forced labour." The word fedora for the popular soft brimmed, centre creased hat also has its origins in drama. It comes from the play Fedora by Victorien Sardou, which opened in 1882. The "Fedora" of the title was a crossdressing woman (originally played by Sarah Bernhardt) who wore hats of that sort. The idea of "bluebird of happiness" stems from the 1909 play l'Oiseau bleu (literally "The Blue Bird" by Maurice Maeterlinck. Of course, the name Peter Pan from J. M. Barrie's famous play of the same name (1904) has been used for men who won't grow up for literally decades now.

Among the playwrights to have the biggest impact on the English language was George Bernard Shaw. Although the name "Pygmalion" goes back to Greek mythology (Pygmalion being a sculptor who made a statue that came to life), it was Shaw who popularised it as a term for someone who reshapes another individual completely when he used it for the title of his play Pygmalion (the basis for the musical My Fair Lady). Shaw may have also been the first person to use the word outcry to mean "public protest." The word had been in the English language since at least 1382, but its original sense was "an act of crying out loud." In 1911 Shaw used it in what is now its most popular sense, that of "public protest" or "public indignation."Among the words which Shaw coined were Bardolatry (for those who worship William Shakespeare a bit too much), Comstockery (for activities of overzealous moral watchdogs, after
Anthony Comstock, founder of New York Society for the Suppression of Vice), and sardoodledom (for plays which depend overly much on a melodramatic plot, after the aforementioned Victorien Sardou).

Perhaps Shaw's biggest contribution to the English language was the word "superman." In 1903 Shaw needed to translate the German word Übermensch for his play Man and Superman. Contrary to popular belief, the word Übermensch was not coined by Nietzsche. It was first used by Hermann Rab, provincial of Saxony, in 1527. It would later be used by both Goethe and Herder. That having been said, Nietzsche certainly popularised the word in his work Thus Spake Zarathustra. There he used it for a theoretical man who would exist beyond all human morality and ethics. Previously Übermensch had been translated into English as both overman and beyond-man, but neither word caught on. It would take George Bernhard Shaw to create a translation of the word that would be popularly adopted. Of course, it would not be long before Nietzsche's idea of a man who existed beyond all human morailty would be lost and the word superman would refer to a man of superhuman capacties. As a result, writer Siegel and artist Joe Shuster would use the word as the name of their new hero in the early Thirties. Once their "Superman" was published in 1938, it would simply make the use of the word "superman" as a term for a supherhuman man even more popular.

Here I must point out that, contrary to popular belief, the word superhero does not appear to have come from the name of Clark Kent's alterego, Superman. In the article "The Roots of the Superman," published in Comic Book Marketplace volume 2 issue #63, September/October 1998, Will Murray points out that the word superhero was used even before Superman saw publication! The word was apparently first used in magazine Street and Smith's radio ads for their upcoming radio show based on popular pulp hero Doc Savage in February 1934. From there it came to be used in Street and Smith's print ads for Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Bill Barnes. Of course, there can be no doubt that the publication of Superman popularised the term superhero. It was being used of the mystery men of comic books as early as 1941 (in an article in Atlantic Monthly by Lowell Thomas. By 1942 it was being used in the comic books themselves. In Star-Spangled Comics #7, April 1942, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby refer to their character The Guardian as a "superhero.").

Here it might be a good time to point out the impact that comic strips have had on the English language. Indeed, this has been the case from almost the beginning. In the 1890s competition heated up between the major newspapers in America, particularly those published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The two of them fought to attract more subscribers with sensationalised stories, more photographs, and, of course, comic strips. Among the most popular strips of the time was The Yellow Kid, created by R.F. Outcault, and first published by Pulitzer in the New York World. Very soon Hearst and Pulitzer would be locked in a struggle over the rights for The Yellow Kid. The name of the comic strip soon gave rise to the phrase "yellow journalism" for senationalised news coverage. Another comic strip that would first be published in the New York World would also have an impact on the English language. Keeping Up With the Joneses was the creation of Arthur R. "Pop" Momand and made its debut in 1916. By the Twenties it would be syndicated throughout the United States. While the comic strip has long since been forgotten, the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" has remained in the English langauge in reference to trying to compete with one's neighbours.

Another comic strip which would contribute to the English language was The Timid Soul, also published in the New York World. The Timid Soul was a single panel strip created by H. T. Webster and debuted in 1924. It centred on Caspar Milquetoast, perhaps the most timid character to ever exist in any medium. Webster himself described Caspar as as "the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick." The comic strip proved very popular. Collections of its reprints were regularly published in the mid-twentieth century. It even almost made it as a TV series. A pilot for a Timid Soul series aired on the DuMont network in 1949. The comic strip itself would run until 1953. Perhaps no greater testament to its success is the adoption of Caspar's last name, milquetoast, for any overly timid or overly shy person in the English language. It was first used as such in the mid-1930s!

Of course, when it comes to comic strips, perhaps none has had the impact on the English language which E. C. Segar's Thimble Theatre (featuring Popeye) has had. The word jeep owes at least part of its existence to Segar. In 1936 a character called Eugene the Jeep made his debut in Thimble Theatre. In 1939 the United States Army took bids for the development of a new military vehicle. Willys won the bidding, although Ford built the actual vehicles from their design. Ford marked the vehicles "G.P." for "General Purpose." Military personnel pronounced the abbreviation "jeep," perhaps after Eugene. The word goon apparently existed before Segar used the word, although he certainly popularised it. It could well be an abbreviated form of gooney, "fool, simpleton," which goes back to the 16th century. After the introduction of Alice the Goon in the pages of Thimble Theatre, however, the word became much more popular. In fact, it is after her appearance that the word is used of the thugs hired by companies to break up strikes. Segar did not coin the word wimp either, but he may well have had an influence on its popularity. It appeared in 1920, apparently derived from whimper. Its rise in popularity could be do to J. Wellington Wimpy, one of the major characters in Thimble Theatre (the one who would glady pay one Tuesday for a hamburger today).

Popeye is not the only hero whose comic strip has had an impact on the English language; so too has Superman's comic books. Bizarro was originally the name of a grotesque duplicate of Superman, first appearing in Superboy #68, November 1958. Bizarro would prove popular enough to make many return appearances in the various Superman titles. Eventually, there would be a whole Bizarro world, where many things were the opposite of what they were on Earth. The term bizarro has then come to describe something strange or unusual, or just the opposite of how it should be. There can be little doubt that much of this use has been popularised by the TV show Seinfeld (always known for its Superman references). Kryptonite, the fictional, crystalline element which is Superman's weakness, first appeared on the radio show The Adventures of Superman and later in the comic books. It has entered common usage as a term for anyone's weakness. Even more strangely, it is also part of modern London rhyming slang as a word for "web site!"

Of course, when it comes to comic strips having an impact on the English language, perhaps no one can match Rube Goldberg's achievement. A cartoonist know for drawing bizarre devices and strange machines, his very name, Rube Goldberg entered the English language as a word referring to any complicated and impractical device!

As might be expected, books have had their influence on the English language as well. The word gargantuan, meaning anything huge, stems from the book Gargantua by Rabelais (1534), which featured a giant of that name. The word utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More for his fictional perfect society in his book Utopia, published in th 15th century. Another place and another book would provide us with the word Ruritanian, referring to any romantic or exciting place. Ruritania was the setting for Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1896) and many of his other novels. The not quite so utopian world portrayed in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962) would also provide the English language with new words. Droog refers to "young thug" or "gang member." Ultraviolence refers to violence of an extreme sort. George Orwell's 1984 also gave us new words. The phrase Big Brother, used of any repressive and overly obtrusive authority, made its first appearance there. It also introduced the word newspeak, used in the novel of the artificially created language of the state, it now refers to any warping of the English language for propaganda purposes. Even Orwell's name itself would lend a new word to the English language. Orwellian refers to totalitarian states of the sort in 1984. On a more upbeat note, the use of the name Pollyanna for someone who is overly opitmistic stems from the novel of the same name, written by Eleanor Porter in 1914.

Strangely enough, while comic strips and books have had an impact on the English language, it seems to me that television and movies really haven't had nearly as much. In fact, it seems to me that for the most part television and movies don't coin new words as much as popularise ones that already exist. The perfect example of this is The Simpson. Homer's exclaimation "D'oh!" is commonly thought to have originated with the show. In truth, it predates the show by many years. In fact, Matt Groening and Dan Castanella both say that they derived the word from character actor James Finlayson, who appeared in many Laurel and Hardy shorts. He would use the word "d-o-o-o-h" rather than more extreme exclamations then unacceptable to America's movie censors. It would later be used by British comedian Peter Glaze on the BBC programme Crackerjack. Of course, there can be little doubt that Homer's use of the word greatly increased its popularity. The same is true of the phrases "ay carumba" and "Don't have a cow," which existed prior to the debut of The Simpsons, but were popularised by the show. Even "Eat my shorts," often credited to Bart Simpson, predates the show. It is used by Judd Nelson's character in The Breakfast Club in the Eighties.

The phrase "jump the shark," referring to the point at which a TV show becomes unviewable, is an interesting case in that it stems from both television and the World Wide Web. In an episode of Happy Days, aired September 20, 1977, Fonzie jumped a shark while water skiing; however, it would be years before the phrase would enter the language. In 1985, while he was in college, webmaster Jon Hein's roommate, Sean J. Connelly, coined the phrase "jump the shark" in reference to the point when a show has gone totally down hill. Naturally, when Hein launched his website devoted to examining when good shows go bad on December 24, 1987, he called the website "Jump the Shark.". From there it entered common usage.

Indeed, it seems tome that the British have had more success with words and phrases coming from television shows than America has. The slang term "dreaded lurgy" for a severe but undefined ailment comes from The Goon Show of both radio and television. And, of course, the use of the word spam for unwanted email is well known. Originating in the MUDs of the Eighties as a term for such things as flooding a computer with data, it would eventually come to be used as it is today for junk email. Its origins go back to a Monty Python's Flying Circus skit in which Vikings in a diner drown out everything else with a song about Spam.

It seems to me that it is rare that new words stem from movies. The word vamp as applied to a seductive woman may have first appeared in the movie A Fool There Was (1915), although it could well have appeared in the play upon which the movie was based first. Joseph Keller coined the phrase catch-22 with the title of his 1961, although it only became popular after the 1970 movie based on the novel was released. In the book, catch-22 is the situation whereby the novel's hero, a bomber pilot, can only be relieved from duty if he is insane, but if he asks to be released from duty, then that prove he is indeed sane and must continue flying. A catch-22 is then a situation from which there is no real escape.The phrase "to make a federal case out of (something)" was first used in the 1959 movie Anatomy of a Murder. The word pixilated, meaning someone who is a bit off in the head, was only found in New England dialects until it appeared in the movie Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936, after which it saw widespread use. The word paparazzi for photographers who go to extreme lengths to take pictures of celebrities comes from the character Paparazzo in La Dolce Vita. For that matter, it is through that movie that the phrase "la dolce vita (in Italian, literally "the sweet life")" entered the English language.

Nearly as often it seems to me that it is the actors themselves than the movies who provide new words for the English language. Mae West lent her name to a sort of life jacket. Humphrey Bogart's last name would come to be used in the Sixties drug culture as a term for refusing to pass a marijuana joint (basically, keeping the joint hanging in one's mouth as Bogie did with his cigarettes). Bogart has since come to refer to other forms of hoarding as well. To this day Valentino can be used of any good looking man who is popular with women. Chaplinesque describes the sort of down and out everymen that Charlie Chaplin played in his films.

Over the centuries, popular culture has added many words to the English language and even modified the uses of some words. Given the number of media outlets today (books, comic books, comic strips, movies, television, the World Wide Web, and so on), it seems to me that this phenomenon could actually increase in coming years. Indeed, I rather suspect that there will be more new words emerging than ever before.

No comments: