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Words with friends: the language of a sitcom

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Having been one of the most-watched programmes on television for 236 episodes over ten years from 1994-2004, it was inevitable that Friends would leave its mark on the linguistic landscape, both in its native USA and elsewhere. From Chandler’s distinctive vocal inflections – “could I be any more sorry?” – to Joey’s “How you doin’?” catchphrase, via the haircut known as “the Rachel”, Friends undeniably had an impact on the world around it.

The creators of Friends, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, probably didn’t think in 1993 when they began developing a sitcom then called ‘Insomnia Cafe’, that their sitcom would end up quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. But, well, that’s what happened. Friends is credited with popularizing the apt term “friend zone”, indicating a platonic relationship where one person (in this case, Ross) wants to be more than just friends, whereas the other (Rachel) does not. Spoiler alert: they make it out of the zone. It is also cited as the first known usage of the term: “Never gonna happen… You and Rachel… You waited too long to make your move, and now you’re in the friend zone”. However, not all terms dreamt up by the Friends writers went on to have wider application: the insult ‘scrud’ (Ross: “What’s a scrud?”; Young girl: “Why don’t you look in the mirror, scrud?”) has not stood the test of time, and even the delightful portmanteau ‘frienaissance’ (friend + renaissance = a renewal of friendship, as instigated by Joey and Phoebe) has yet to enter common usage.

“You’re funny, Chandler. You’re a funny guy!” – Rachel

Like many sitcoms, Friends included wordplay within its arsenal of comic weaponry, more often than not placed into the mouth of Chandler Bing. While a lot of the character’s humour was dependent on delivery and comic timing, he wasn’t averse to the odd pun, focusing with surprising frequency on his own name: he claimed that Bing is “Gaelic for ‘thy turkey’s done’” (probably not the only time that Friends used onomatopoeia for comic effect, but the only one I can think of), and once told Phoebe that she should meet his uncle, Bada. His first name also proved rich comic fodder, despite coming in for criticism from Joey who claimed (erroneously) that “It’s barely even a word! It’s kinda like ‘chandelier’ – but it’s not.” For example, in a moment of crisis Chandler made the indisputable linguistic point: “I can handle it; handle’s my middle name. Actually, it’s the middle part of my first name.” Less impressively, he once described cranberries as ‘chan-berries’.

“French – which, according to my résumé, I’m fluent in” – Joey

Given the international popularity of Friends, I have often wondered how the translators cope with such jokes. As with any scripts involving lots of puns and wordplay, it must be a struggle for the translators to successfully express all the different elements of the jokes whilst retaining the humour. For example, on a visit to Westminster Abbey, Joey accused Chandler of being ‘Westminster Crabby’, and regardless of what you think of the joke itself (I don’t rate it as one of their best, personally), you have to feel sorry for whoever in Germany had to make ‘mürrisch’ sound like ‘Abtei’. Similarly, Chandler’s hypothesis that there could be a town in Missouri called ‘Sample’, with a welcome sign saying ‘You’re in Sample’ only works in languages where the words for ‘you’re in’ sound like the word for ‘urine’. I haven’t done a full check but I believe that’s just English. Subtler problems would have been caused by Chandler wanting to know whether ‘the place with the big fish’ held multiple fish or just one big fish, or his responding to the question ‘Who’s number two?’ by saying “’Whose number two’ – one of the more difficult games sewer workers play.” Sorry about mentioning both urine and sewers in this paragraph.

Some of the most amusing moments in Friends came when characters got words wrong. There is something quite poetic to Phoebe’s chastisement of Monica: “You sound like Moni-can’t, not Moni-can!”, and who can forget Joey’s detour into etymology, explaining the origins of the alleged phrase ‘moo point’: “It’s like a cow’s opinion; it just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.”. Genuine colloquialisms were also extrapolated for comic effect in Friends, as in Chandler’s retort to worries that he’d been left high and dry: “I’ve never been lower or wetter”. Or, from the same character: “This isn’t out of the blue! This is smack dab in the middle of the blue!” Such wordplay shows an appreciation of the development of language that “Westminster Crabby” doesn’t quite reach.

“All right, what have we learned so far?” – Chandler

While fans tended to focus on its humour, Friends also found the time to provide educational benefit to its viewers. While most would have learnt little from Joey’s ‘word of the day’ toilet paper (cachet, jaunty, judgmental, condescending, and pedantic were new to him, at least), most of us hadn’t come across the word ‘gleba’ until it was the reputed first word of Ross and Rachel’s daughter, Emma. Rachel even read out a definition: “the fleshy spore-bearing inner mass of a certain fungi”, and while I’ve not yet been able to use it in conversation, it’s surely only a matter of time.

No view of Friends’ use of language would be complete without a look at their episode titles, which quite simply state what happened in the episode: “The One Where Rachel Goes Back to Work”, for example, was the title of the season nine episode in which Rachel went back to work. Unimaginative perhaps, but understandable: the writers decided on this system because they were tired of spending so much time coming up with clever episode titles on their previous sitcom, Dream On (e.g. May Divorce Be With You; Toby Or Not Toby; The Charlotte Letter. That does sound like hard work, actually).

Although it’s been nearly a decade since the last Friends episode was broadcast, the sitcom remains a staple on our screens, so its use of language will be enjoyed for many years to come.