Catchphrase and cunning plans

During a recent televised game of English soccer, a routine play was described thus: “They had a cunning plan.”

In fact there wasn’t anything especially crafty about the tactics on display – one player passed to another who immediately attempted to kick a straightforward goal. And this was precisely the commentator’s point.

In comedy Blackadder, when servant Baldrick declared to his master that he had a cunning plan, it invariably transpired the strategy he had in mind was nothing of the sort.

That the phrase would have been recognised by many soccer fans reflects both the show’s popularity and the tendency for our everyday language to absorb words and phrases from the texts we consume.

Our written culture has long influenced the way we communicate, phrases from books and plays seeping into the landscape of contemporary language, which changes constantly as new words and expressions are added and others fall out of use.

Take the expression “sour grapes,” which dates from the Aesop’s Fable about a fox, who, unable to reach a bunch of the fruit perched high on the vine, declares them not to his taste.

Outside of its profound historical and religious influence, the Bible has offered plenty to the texture of the way we speak.

Expressions such as, “woe is me,” “by the skin of your teeth,” “living off the fat of the land,” “no rest for the wicked,” “bite the dust,” “the writing is on the wall and “the powers that be” originate in the Good Book.

A slew of expressions either written or popularised by William Shakespeare have also filtered into our lingo.

“Laughing stock,” “sea change,” “bloody minded,” “cold comfort,” “foul play” and “good riddance” all featured in plays written by the Bard.

Though he was long gone by the time the expression “to steal one’s thunder” was coined, Shakespeare is also partly responsible for its genesis.

The story goes that John Dennis, something of a theatrical all-rounder who wrote and directed plays and managed theatre companies in the 1700s, invented a device that made a nifty stage thunder effect. It was used in a play Dennis wrote called Appius and Virginia.

The play, however, was not a success and was soon taken off in favour of a production of Macbeth, a sure-fire hit.

Dennis went to the opening night of the play and was shocked to hear his thunder machine being used.

He leapt to his feet and shouted, “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder but not my play!”

Like many sayings that have stood the test of time, it has been refined and made punchier, but remained in use.

So will popular culture prove as prolific in its contribution to the spoken and written word?

It seems unlikely, at least in the long term.

In the first place, regardless of how powerful or popular a film, TV program, radio broadcast or even Internet site is, it’s not going to have the cachet or reach of the Bible or the works of that chap from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Of course, popular culture indubitably shapes the way we communicate, and you only have to listen to a bunch of schoolkids talking to, like, totally realise that, like, television so does have an influence.

Yet the Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrase suggests that although many grabs from the big and small screen seize the popular imagination, most have an ephemeral existence, and are rarely used beyond a program’s run.

And that’s probably why you don’t hear folks exclaim, “She goes, she goes … she just goes,” “correctamundo,” or “schwing,” much these days. They are all horribly dated. Of their time.

Once a ubiquitous replacement for harsher language, even Homer Simpson’s “D’oh” looks like it might be going the way of the Fred Flintstone line, “Yabba-dabba-do!”

Seinfeld’s substitute for blah blah blah – “Yada, yada, yada” – has likewise fallen out of use.

Similarly, you don’t hear about folks working on their Penske files much these days. But perhaps this will change following the opening of a bar in Fitzroy named in honour of the show’s George Costanza character.

The word “muggle” from JK Rowling’s extraordinarily popular Harry Potter book series was added to the Oxford English Dictionary early in the new millennium. In the books a muggle means someone who can’t practice magic, but it can also be used to describe anyone who is accident- prone or unable to master a skill. But it has quickly fallen out of use.

Many expressions that do have a longer shelf life, say, “Go ahead, make my day,” “I’ll be back,” or “Missed it by that much,” are better described as quotes, and are usually executed in very poor imitations of Dirty Harry, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and secret agent Maxwell Smart, respectively.

Yet when we say, “one fell swoop,” or, “pound of flesh,” we don’t use a Scottish burr just because they originated in Macbeth. They’ve become a fully-fledged part of the language.

Perhaps it’s simply a case that if an expression is in use long enough, its origin is forgotten, and knowledge of it therefore unnecessary.

A case in point is the expression, “keeping up with the Joneses”, which was the title of a comic strip that was first published in New York in 1913. One doesn’t have to be familiar with its origins to understand that it means staying fashionable, keeping up to date with trends.

It seems there is no rhyme nor reason (a phrase first recorded by John Russell in The Boke of Nurture, circa 1460) for how language involves.

Predicting which phrases have legs (so to speak) is therefore problematic. Guesswork, at best.

The signature catchphrase from Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996), “Show me the money,” a demand for employers to cough up large amounts of cash, looks like it might have durability.

Writer and director Cameron Crowe put it in the film after hearing a real-life football player use it.

In the movie the phrase was shouted by gridiron star Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jnr) to his agent, the eponymous character played by Tom Cruise.

Another phrase that originated in the arena of sports, “The opera ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings,” was coined in 1978 by sports broadcaster Dan Cook after the first of a seven-game basketball series.

Like the “stealing thunder” phrase, it’s been refined over the years to become simply, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”

You also occasionally hear about an offer that can’t be refused – a Godfather offer – named for Marlon Brando’s menacing character in the 1970s gangster flick.

Should a character in that film have been silly enough not to accept a Don Corleone proposal, he would be rubbed out, whacked, clipped or be found swimming with the fishes.

And one doesn’t have to read the novel by Joseph Heller or seen the Mike Nichols (1970) film to know that “a Catch-22 situation” is a paradox or predicament in which seeming alternatives cancel each other out.

Yet another way for catchphrases to stick around is for them to be appropriated by other programs.

The expression “Cowabunga,” for instance, was coined on The Howdy Doody Show (1947–1960) and featured in Gidget, Sesame Street, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and most recently, The Simpsons.

As the Good Book says, there really is nothing new under the sun.


A version of this article first appeared in issue 32 of Australian Screen Education.

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