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soap opera language

Love triangles and cliffhangers: soap operatic language

As my family have long since learnt, it’s never worth trying to call me between the hours of 5.30-6pm or 7-7.30pm. That is when the rest of the world is as nothing to me, earthquakes and hurricanes would not disrupt me, for I am watching my soaps. (Neighbours and Emmerdale, since you ask.) Since soap operas are among the most-watched programmes in Britain, and popular throughout the world, I thought it would be apt to turn my attention away from the screen for a moment, and write a little about the language of soaps.

Soap operas do not, perhaps, have a reputation for linguistic complexity and narrative brilliance, but they have had more influence on the English language than might be assumed.

Good clean fun

There’s the term soap opera to start with. It’s become an accepted part of everyday language for so many years that one hardly notices how incongruous the words are. On the face of it, the words seem to suggest a production of Tosca performed entirely by Imperial Leather. In actual fact, the word soap isn’t a metaphor or euphemism, but does, indeed, refer to soap.

In the early days, these serials (as they were originally known) on the radio were often sponsored by soap manufacturers, and the association stuck. As for opera, the comparison simply seems to be the scale of dramatic incident that happens in these programmes – the other common instance of this use of opera can be seen in horse opera; an expression first used in 1927 to refer to a Western film or television series.

At present, Oxford English Dictionary (OED) research suggests that soap was first used in this context in 1938, in the phrase soap tragedies. A year later, in American newspaper Newsweek, soap opera was first used as a term. It wasn’t long before it took on figurative associations. At present, the earliest known use is traced to Raymond Chandler’s 1944 novel The Lady in the Lake – “I haven’t heard a word from Muriel in the whole month… I don’t have any idea at all where’s she’s at. With some other guy maybe. I hope he treats her better than I did… Thanks for listening to the soap opera.” – which suggests that the figurative use of soap opera connotes any unlikely, convoluted, or emotional story. Since then, soap-operatic and even soap-operatical have come into use as adjectives.

Bold, beautiful, Brookside

The naming of soap operas is an important aspect of their marketing and reception. While our American cousins have often chosen evocative or impassioned titles (The Bold and the Beautiful and Days of our Lives for example), British soaps tend towards the prosaic and factual. Eastenders refers to those who live in the East End of London – these inhabitants have been known as East Enders or East-enders since at least 1821, according to current OED findings – while Coronation Street, Brookside, and New Zealand contribution Shortland Street make no mystery as to the locale for the various murders, affairs, and amnesiac episodes that make up your average week living on a soap street.

Amnesiac love triangles: the clichés of soap operas

The OED definition of soap opera refers to serials ‘characterized by melodrama and sentimentality’, and within these spheres there are many and various clichés and tropes recognizable to any avid fan of soapies (the abbreviation soapies, incidentally, dates back to 1964, and doesn’t follow common rules for plurals – that is, the recognized singular is soapie, rather than soapy). Soap operas don’t lay claim to having coined any of these words and expressions, but they – and the articles written about them in soap magazines – certainly make good use of them.

Love triangle – soap operas love a good love triangle, and viewers are quite surprised if a marriage or relation lasts for more than a few months without one or both of the involved parties catching the eye of somebody else. The OED defines a love triangle (which predates soap operas by some decades, appearing in a 1909 American newspaper) as ‘a state of affairs in which one person is romantically or sexually involved with two others (one or both of whom may not be aware of or complicit in the situation)’, and that’s certainly the norm for soaps. Usually the audience are let in on the secret early (soap operas thrive on dramatic irony), and wait for the inevitable fallout.

Cliffhanger – since soaps need to keep the viewer watching day after day, year after year, they are by nature inconclusive, and audiences are rarely offered tidy endings. If everything got sorted out, after all, you could contentedly turn over to another channel and watch the news – but soaps don’t let you off that easily, and cliffhangers are sure ways to make sure the viewer comes back the next day. Originally another term for a serial drama where every episode ended in a desperate drama (such as the hero hanging off a cliff), and currently dated to 1937, the noun is now commonly used to refer solely to the incident in question – be that the exposure of an affair, a car hurtling off the road, or the unmasking of a serial killer.

SORAS, an acronym which often features in fan discussions and deconstructions of soap operas, is one of the most popular words for enjoying how silly soap storylines can be. Standing for Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, it is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the common practice (particularly in American soaps) of recasting a child or teenage actor with an actor considerably older. This can lead to confusing timelines in soap operas – for example, in Guiding Light (an American soap which is credited as the longest-running TV drama ever, from 1952-2009) a character named Leah Bauer went to boarding school a year after she had been born on-screen, and was fourteen on her return a year later – twelve years older than her ‘older brother’.

While soap operas can be a bit near the knuckle in the UK, and are notorious for attracting viewer complaints when they feature sensitive storylines like child kidnap, teenage pregnancy, or substance abuse, soaps from Australia tend to be rather tamer. Indeed, Neighbours is G-rated – an Australian rating which means that it is restricted to storylines and scenes considered suitable for a general audience; the Classifications Board stipulate that the content must be “very mild” for viewers. In practice, this doesn’t just affect the storylines involving Ramsay Street residents, but the language they are allowed to use. Long-term viewers delight in spotting the various euphemisms in frequent Neighbours use, from ‘going all the way’ and ‘taking our relationship to the next level’ rather than ‘sex’, and ‘stuff’ instead of ‘drugs’. One character was even ‘addicted to nightclubbing’ during the early 2000s. Incidentally, to go all the way, as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, is included in the OED, dated to 1924.

Soaps in the OED

Although proper nouns are not all included in the OED, they do appear if they have taken on secondary uses. Eastenders, then, is not included as a single word – but Coronation Street does have its own entry – not simply as ‘the name of a television series about the inhabitants of a street in a working-class area in northern England’ but also ‘used allusively to denote a typical street of this sort. Hence as adjective, working-class.’

Quotations from the scripts of British soap operas also appear as supporting evidence in various OED entries. Since soaps usually intend to reflect the everyday language of people in the areas depicted, these scripts can often provide useful evidence of colloquial and dialectical language which would be less likely to appear in print elsewhere. Brookside, a soap set in Liverpool which was cancelled in 2003 after 21 years, is quoted in fourteen entries, including five instances where the scripts provide the current earliest examples of words or senses. These include Indian (as an abbreviation for ‘a meal from an Indian restaurant’), no messing (a colloquialism indicating that the speaker is being serious), and the colourful expression couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery, used to imply that the person in question is incapable of organizing the simplest of tasks. Eastenders scripts are quoted nineteen times in the OED, in entries from oi to que sera sera but, at present, doesn’t provide the earliest evidence for any word or sense. If inclusion in the OED were the criterion to end the decades-long amicable battle between Eastenders and Coronation Street, then the cobbles of Weatherfield would lose out: only one Corrie script is currently quoted, and it is a stage direction, rather than dialogue, which is cited. In the entry for FX (a graphic representation of the word effects, often used as an abbreviation of special effects) Coronation Street’s ‘FX baby gurgling’ is quoted as supporting evidence.

From the fanfare of Dallas’s 1980 ‘Who shot JR?’ storyline to the most mundane of farming trivia on Emmerdale Farm, soap operas exist both to reflect and exaggerate everyday life. Although, with up to six episodes a week, writers are unlikely to find time to write prizewinning dialogue, and soaps are still considered rather inferior by many intellectuals, there’s no sign of them going anywhere, particularly in the UK. Now, excuse me, if you will – it’s coming up to 5.30pm, and I need to see what unlikely activities a group of actors in Melbourne are going to get up to today.

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