A little bit of pixie dust: five of Disney’s contributions to the English language
When we ruminate on the enormous effect all things Disney have had on popular culture from the early 20th century onwards (think ‘Steamboat Willie’ to the upcoming Star Wars films), we might call to mind hundreds of animated movies, several enormous theme parks, thousands of toys, and dozens of familiar characters—not to mention one ubiquitous cartoon mouse—recognized across the globe.
But what about Disney’s influence on the English language?
Here are five words with direct ties to Walt Disney, his company, and his creations. Starting with the word you’re probably thinking of first…
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this adjective is indeed in the Oxford English Dictionary. Meaning extraordinarily good or wonderful, it is probably a fanciful formation on the adjective super and suffixes –ic and –ious (though there have been many attempts to draw a connection between supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and words of Greek and Latin origin, none of these are supported by the evidence).
You may be surprised to learn that the word existed in some form prior to the 1964 Walt Disney film Mary Poppins; indeed, the songwriters Gloria Parker and Barney Young brought a lawsuit against Disney in 1965, alleging copyright infringement of their song ‘Supercalafajalistickespialadojus’. Although the judge ultimately ruled against the plaintiffs (due to the dissimilarity between the two songs and attestations of earlier oral uses of the word), Parker and Young’s song title remains the first quotation in the OED entry for the word. Still, it was the catchy song in Mary Poppins—performed by Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke—that popularized it.
Disneyfy, Disneyfied, Disneyfication
You know you’ve made it when your last name becomes a verb, or, in Walt Disney’s case, a verb, adjective, and a noun.
The earliest of these is the adjective Disneyfied—meaning, ‘created by Disney, or altered in a way considered characteristic of Disney’—and although all were first used generally to refer to things with Disneyesque characteristics (also covered in the OED), these words are now frequently used in a derogatory way; for instance, Disneyfied can now also mean sanitized, simplified, or romanticized.
Defined as an ‘imaginary magical substance used by pixies, or a hypothetical thing considered to be special or extremely effective’, the current first evidence for pixie dust is found in Sammy Cain’s 1951 song ‘You Can Fly! You Can Fly!’, which was featured in the 1953 Disney film Peter Pan:
All it takes is faith and trust
But the thing that’s a positive must
Is a little bit of pixie dust.
The word pixie has uncertain origins, but it may come from puck, probably cognate with the Old Icelandic púki, meaning mischievous demon. All speculation, of course, but it is perhaps possible that Tinkerbell has something in common with Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Bambi, the young, wide-eyed deer who stars in Disney’s 1942 film, also stars in a longer entry in the OED. There, we can find some interesting compounds such as Bambi eyes—meaning very large or wide-open eyes—and Bambi factor or Bambi syndrome, two derogatory terms for the tendency of human attitudes toward animals to be dominated by sentimentality or anthropomorphism. Which is understandable—the animal characters in ‘Bambi’ are ridiculously cute. And Paul McCartney, a staunch vegetarian and animal rights activist (in addition to being the former lead singer of the Beatles, of course), has even said he was influenced as a child by the scene in which Bambi’s mother is killed by hunters.
Another fun fact regarding Bambi and the OED: can you think of a word that the film popularized, much like Peter Pan popularized pixie dust?
If you guessed twitterpated, you’re correct! This word is commonly associated with the scene in Bambi in which an owl teaches Bambi why the birds are acting so lovestruck. “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime!” The word comes from twitter—a condition of tremulous excitement—and pated, having a head or mind of a specified kind; ‘pate’ is a Middle English word for a person’s head, still seen in other words like addlepated, a variant of addlebrained.
Without a doubt, Mickey Mouse has the longest and most multi-faceted Disney-related entry in the OED (in fact, Mickey has two entries—one for Mickey Mouse as adjective and noun, and one for the verb). Purely Walt Disney’s creation, Mickey Mouse made his debut in the short animated cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie’ in 1928, and for decades has been the mascot for the Walt Disney Company, recognized all over the world.
Initially, of course, the definition of Mickey Mouse had to do with the character specifically; the adjective was first used to describe something featuring, resembling, or having to do with Mickey. However, as early as 1931, Mickey Mouse also began to designate a person or thing deemed to be lacking in value, size, authenticity, or seriousness.
Mickey Mouse, the noun, has a more diverse history; initially referring simply to a representation of the character Mickey, it has also come to mean a small spotlight (a rare term, chiefly in film slang), pointless activity, and even an electrical device which releases bombs from an aircraft.
Perhaps Walt Disney could never have guessed that his legacy would lead all the way to the OED—but it makes sense. Since virtually everyone we know grew up with at least a basic understanding of the most popular Disney films, it follows that the characters and ideas therein, imbued with cultural currency, would provide a quickly-communicable, easy-to-grasp mode of conveying an idea. Which is a boring way of saying: why bother describing your neighbor as having “these eyes, kind of like a deer’s, you know, since deer seem to be pretty timid and naïve, and when they see you they just kind of stare at you, with really wide eyes, you know?” when you can just say “he has Bambi eyes”? For that, thank you, Mr. Disney.