The bodacious language of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Keanu Reeves a linguistic icon? That would be an impressive achievement for Reeves, but truth be told, the iconic status doesn’t go so much to Mr Reeves as to one of his most memorable characters – (Theodore) Ted Logan from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).
Ted just wants to make a triumphant music video with Eddie Van Halen so that he and his buddy Bill (S. Preston) can have a triumphant band. Their dreams could meet a most odious end — unless he passes his history report, Ted’s off to military school. Luckily — the kind of luck you only see in the movies — a guy named Rufus helps them travel through time, where they meet historical figures, like Ghengis Khan and Socrates.
American English isn’t totally heinous or odious, but it is often bogus, or at least used bogusly. Bill and Ted know this, and out of dissatisfaction with the language of everything uptight and cynical, they contrive their own variety of American speech — a unique mixture of apple pie, Slurpee®, and unabridged dictionary. Bill and Ted stand for wide-eyed, laid-back optimism, and their vocabulary reflects their values. Above all, they admonish us, “Be excellent to each other,” in what is obviously a slightly non-normal meaning of excellent — it’s not non-normal, exactly, but it’s a little non-non-normal, which is how the Bill and Ted perspective on life is usually expressed. Oh, “And party on, dudes.”
Perhaps the most novel item of Bill and Ted’s slang is station, which, on 26 March 2004, Julian Alvarez correctly defined as “A term that can mean anything. Also, the name of the most intelligent being according to the movie Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” Five of seven Urban Dictionary entries for station in this or related senses mention either Bill and Ted or one of their movies. On balance, station “belongs” to Bill and Ted.
Bill and Ted’s slang reverses everything pretentious — it appropriates dictionary terms usually reserved for resplendent rhetoric, where it often sounds bogus, as signs of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “intensive laidbackness.” That most triumphant paradox underlies the life that’s totally station; it’s the key that unlocks the value of Bill and Ted’s lexical repertoire. When you can be resplendent without really trying, you can also love yourself and be excellent to each other, not to mention party on — just one more reason why slang is good for you.
It’s difficult to explain Bill and Ted’s iconicity. They haven’t coined the words they use to such memorable effect — egregious, excellent, heinous, most, odious, outstanding, resplendent, stellar, totally, triumphant, and unrivaled have all been in English for a long time. Even the slangiest of their favorite words — bodacious, bogus, and dude — would have seemed ancient to Bill and Ted, had they only known. Green’s Dictionary of Slang records bodacious ‘excellent’ as early as 1907, but the word had been around to mean ‘audacious, insolent’ since 1845, and to mean, as Green puts it, “of a young woman, attractive, esp. possessed of large breasts,” since 1936. Bogus ‘fake, spurious’ has been in play since 1840 and, as a term of disapproval meaning everything from ‘unpleasant’ to ‘unfair’, since 1898. Dude, just to mean first ‘man, guy’ and then ‘person’ has been around at least since 1883, as a term of address — Bill and Ted’s preferred usage — since the 1970s.
In his classic article on dude, Scott Kiesling draws attention to Bill and Ted’s iconic relationship to the word, and Green does the same in his entry for bodacious. But Bill and Ted’s iconic adventure can only be iconic if it’s common knowledge. Urban Dictionary proves how readily everyday speakers connect the slang to Bill and Ted. Sometimes the connection is explicit, as when Pyron, on 26 August 2004, defined triumphant as “Totally fucking awesome and/or glorious, i.e. Bill and Ted.” But sometimes it’s implicit, the connection obvious only to those who know the slang and how it works. On 14 June 2008, FlowersInMidgar2 defined the catchphrase Be excellent to each other as “The greatest and least heinous of all golden rules” — heinous gives the association away. Stellar in its emphatic sense “is a word used when something is most excellent,” according to Matt, on April 16, 2004. Gyrapage, on 16 February 2006, illustrated bodacious with three quotations from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the most triumphant of which is Ted’s discourse on the Maid of Orléans: “A most bodacious soldier, and general, Ms. Of Arc totally rousted the English from France.” The benefits of time-travel to the study of world history cannot be denied.
By now, the species of slang so alive in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is virtually extinct. It’s fresh and incredibly sincere when it comes from the mouth of earlier characters, like Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). It’s quirky but still authentic in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure — there’s nothing bogus about it. Instead, it sounds simultaneously strange and natural, even inevitable — how else would Bill and Ted speak? Bill and Ted don’t speak like surfers or Valley Girls because they don’t think or act like surfers or Valley Girls. The difference between their slang and the others makes all the difference; they speak in a distinct, distinctive, and distinctly American voice.
But we’ll never forget Bill and Ted. When we hear bodacious or station, whose distinctive American voice do we hear? It’s yours, Mr Reeves. Have a most triumphant birthday. Remember to shave. Be excellent to others, and others, I’m sure, will be excellent to you. And party on, dude.