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Origin stories: fictional titles and their lasting impressions

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How I stopped worrying and learned to love the language

To avoid appearing like simple-minded vessels of superficial consumption, we often try not to let on the extent to which media has come to inform our lives. From the time we are young, we’re encouraged to value real-life experiences over the simulated kind found in video games or the fictions found in movies, television, and even the “higher” arts of novels and plays.

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, however, it’s become increasingly difficult not to recognize how greatly creative entertainment media has enriched our realities. One only needs to look at how our everyday language has been infiltrated to see that “mediated” words are, in fact, highly productive in shaping our engagement with the world around us. Some words and expressions jump out at us and immediately remind us of the pieces of culture from which they derived (Rambo, mini-me, and Big Brother to name a few). Others identify concepts so common that we tend to forget their roots until we encounter them in novels, films, plays, television, and song lyrics (bogart, scrooge, munchkin).

A search through etymologies in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals evidence for scores of words, meanings, and expressions that either originated in or were popularized by some form of creative writing. Another serendipitous discovery was the number of film, novel, and play titles alone that have produced words and sayings that appear in everyday English.

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big chill (n.) – A numbing and depressing sensation or influence on the feelings, a damper; (also) a state of affairs causing loss of confidence or resolve. Freq. with the.

The Big Chill was a 1983 drama about a group of college friends who have reunited 20 years later for a weekend of nostalgia and reflection after the death of one of their own. Although the expression was in use long before the release of The Big Chill, the film’s title does seem to have influenced the way the condition is written about, which can be seen most evidently in how and when the determiner “the” gets added to “big chill”:

big chill_1big chill_2

bucket list (n.) – a list of things that a person hopes to experience or achieve during his or her lifetime.

The 2007 film The Bucket List starred Hollywood greats Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as terminally ill gentlemen who seek out new adventures and yet-to-be-fulfilled goals in the final stages of their lives, crossing each one off a list as it is accomplished. “Bucket list” is still relatively new for a concept so familiar—its earliest recorded usage being a mention of the list’s function in the film:

bucket list

The expression spins off of the slang phrase kick the bucket, meaning ‘to die.’ It’s probable that the bucket here refers not to the more familiar definition of the word—a container used to hold liquid—but actually to a less common homonyma beam or yoke on which anything may be hung or carried. A quotation included in the OED entry for “bucket” when it was first published in 1888 supports this assumption:

“The beam on which a pig is suspended after he has been slaughtered is called in Norfolk, even in the present day, a ‘bucket’. Since he is suspended by his heels, the phrase to ‘kick the bucket’ came to signify to die.”

catch-22 (n.) – a supposed law or regulation containing provisions which are mutually frustrating; a set of circumstances in which one requirement, etc., is dependent upon another, which is in turn dependent upon the first.

Joseph Heller’s novel, published in November 1961, introduces a scenario which drastically restricts the actions of its characters. A military rule, “Catch-22,” is designed to prevent soldiers from backing out of dangerous combat missions. They instead find themselves trapped in a circular logic that uses their pleas of insanity as leverage. As the first mention of the word in the novel explains it:

catch-22_1

Later uses of the term also help to illuminate the sheer ridiculousness of this kind of dilemma:

catch-22_2

If any positive outcome can be drawn from the unfortunate circumstance of a catch-22, it’s the recognition that shorthand descriptions of paradoxical or lose-lose situations have permeated our vocabulary (“Sophie’s choice” is another that comes to mind).

gaslight (v.) – To manipulate (a person) by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.

Another undesirable phenomenon that exploits one’s sanity, the origin of the word “gaslight” can be found, rather appropriately, in drama. The 1938 play Gas Light (and later films titled Gaslight ) feature a house with flickering lights, manually adjusted by a husband who denies awareness of any changes whatsoever, so as to convince his wife that she has lost her mind.

The first written record of the word outside of the play and films’ titles can be found in a journal of mental illness:

gaslight

Given the amount of attention it continues to receive, it doesn’t look as though the practice of gaslighting has lost its potency, and neither has the expanded awareness of the concept and its terminology.

money pit (n.) – A major drain on financial resources, a waste of money; spec. a house in need of expensive repairs or maintenance.

Before the 1986 comedy The Money Pit was announced, the only sense of “money pit” in use was of a literal pit in the ground made to hide treasure or money, particularly of one known to exist on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia:

money pit

After the film released, the main association with the term shifted to align closer with the plot of the film: a young couple purchases a dilapidated house and exhausts much of their financial resources on the fixer-upper. Now “money pit” is used to refer to any similar type of investment that can be considered a waste of money:

money pit_2

Character studies: a test

We frequently come across attributive or extended uses of titular characters in everyday descriptions of types of people and their personalities, and it’s often remarkable how far our common uses of these names divert from (or stay faithful to) their initial conception.

Can you guess the names below just by knowing these commonly used descriptions?

Highlight the blank boxes for answers and title descriptions.

Name Common Use
Grinch: a foul-tempered greedy mountain creature in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas spoilsport, killjoy
Hell’s Angel: a squadron of WWI fighter planes in the 1930 film Hell’s Angel member of a notorious motorcycle group
Moby Dick: the great white whale under pursuit by Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick very large, important, or impressive; anything elusive or unattainable that one continues to strive to acquire
Strangelove: a nuclear scientist and advisor in Stanley Kubrik’s 1964 satirical film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb someone who ruthlessly considers or plans nuclear warfare
Stepford: an idyllic American suburb in the 1972 novel (and 1975 film) The Stepford Wives denoting a person who is obedient or too perfect
Superfly: a fashionable and self-confident character in the 1972 film Super Fly too cool for school