10 Everyday Words Star Wars Gave Us

Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Episode IV, Star Wars: A New Hope, the film that lit lightsabers everywhere, was released 40 years ago today. For the first time, we (or at least those of us who were alive back then) met Luke and Leia, Obi-Wan and Vader, Han and Chewie, C-3PO and R2-D2. It was also the first time we heard Star Wars lingo, so much of which, as linguist Mark Peters says, is now commonplace. Here are 10 everyday words given to us by Star Wars.

1. JEDI

Good at something? Feel free to call yourself a Jedi. This term for a knight of the light side—and by extension, someone proficient in a particular field or skill—is said to come from the Japanese word jidaigeki, a genre of Japanese period dramas set during the Edo period or earlier. Such dramas often feature samurai warriors, ronin (samurai without masters), craftsmen, merchants, and government officials, and are also believed to be the inspiration behind the Star Wars films themselves.

2. JEDI MIND TRICK

Although we first witness the Jedi mind trick in the original Star Wars (“These are not the droids you’re looking for,” Obi-Wan Kenobi convinces a Stormtrooper), we don’t hear the term until Episode VI, Return of the Jedi. “You weak-minded fool!” Jabba the Hutt chastises his underling. “He's using an old Jedi mind trick.” Now the term refers to any illusion or subterfuge.

3. THE FORCE

The Force is what gives a Jedi his power,” Obi-Wan tells Luke. “It's an energy field created by all living things.” It’s also been used to refer to everything from positive vibes to inner strength. The force also refers to a body of police, while the word comes from the Latin fortis, “strong.”

4. THE DARK SIDE

Along with a light side, the Force also has a dark side. The phrase is now commonly used to describe the negative aspects of something. The Dark Side of Giving Employees Unlimited Time Off, Digging into the Dark Side of Our True Crime Obsession, and The Dark Side of Detroit’s Renaissance are just a few examples.

5. NERFHERDER

“You stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerfherder!” Leia says to Han. This excellent insult seems to refer to zoophilia, says Peters. That is, a sort of, ahem, attraction to animals. Nerf, before becoming the brand name of soft, spongy toys, was originally a drag racing term meaning to bump another car, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). And in a collision of nerd universes, Nerf Herder is the name of the American rock band behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme song.

6. STAR WARS

In the early 1980s, Star Wars became the derisive nickname for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Ronald Reagan’s proposed defense strategy of destroying enemy weapons in space with lasers and anti-ballistic missiles launched from satellites. Aerospace journalist Robert Hotz wrote about the “real star wars” in a 1982 issue of Space World magazine, while TIME promptly called Reagan’s initiative his “star wars defense concept” after the SDI was publicly announced a year later.

7. CARBONITE

Before carbonite referred to the material that encased Han Solo in Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back, it was a coke-like material (1810), a kind of salt (1830), and a type of explosive (1890), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Star Wars definition was added to the venerable dictionary in 2008.

8. STORMTROOPER

“Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise,” Obi-Wan says. While stormtrooper wasn’t coined in the Star Wars universe, the films certainly popularized the term. Stormtrooper first came about during World War I, according to the OED, and referred to a soldier, especially a German one, trained to carry out sudden assaults. By the early 1930s, it meant a member of the Sturmabteilung, a paramilitary wing of the Nazis. According to Google Ngrams, the popularity of the term dropped after 1944, rose to a peak in the mid-1970s (around the time Star Wars was released), and an even higher peak in the late 1990s (Episode I, The Phantom Menace was released in 1999).

9. DROID

Droid is another term that was popularized by rather than coined in the Star Wars films. Short for android—which was coined in the late 1800s, but popularized in the 1950s by science fiction writers—droid made its first appearance in the stupendously titled short story, “Robots of the World! Arise!” by Mari Wolf: “They're stopping robots in the streets—household Robs, commercial Droids, all of them.” The OED lists no other usages until Star Wars. "I'm only a droid,” says Threepio, “and not very knowledgeable about such things.”

10. PADAWAN

The Phantom Menace gave us one good thing: the word padawan. Meaning a Jedi apprentice, the term is now used to refer to any apprentice. “One of my super young cooks—I call him a ‘padawan’—always tries to taste stuff,” a Top Chef alum recently told US Weekly. Padawan is also a municipality in Malaysia. The name is apparently a blend of the Bidayuh words Padja and Birawan, Padja the name of the eldest son of an ancient village elder and Birawan the word for mystical healing beads.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

Game of Thrones Fans Have Been Mispronouncing Khaleesi

HBO
HBO

While Game of Thrones fans are busy poring over every still image and official trailer released for the show's final season in the hope of noticing some tiny detail that might hint at what's to come, David Peterson—the linguist who creates the series' fictional languages—dropped a huge piece of information: we've all been mispronouncing  Khaleesi.

While being interviewed for The Allusionist podcast, Peterson described the rampant mispronunciation as "a real thorn in my side." So just how should we be saying the Dothraki word?

"I wanted to make sure if something was spelled differently, it was pronounced differently," Peterson explained of his process of transforming the handful of Dothraki words George R.R. Martin had created into a full language. "That worked pretty well for everything except the word Khaleesi ... There's no way it should be pronounced 'ka-LEE-see' based on the spelling. So I had to decide, 'Am I going to respell this thing because I know how people are going to pronounce this, or am I going to honor that spelling and pronounce it differently?' I made the latter decision and I think it was the wrong decision."

(That said, in his book Living Language Dothraki, Peterson writes that "many Dothraki words have multiple pronunciation variants, often depending on whether the speaker is native or non-native. Khaleesi, for example, has three separate pronunciations: khal-eh-si, khal-ee-si, and kal-ee-si," which at a later point in the book spelled is "ka-lee-si.")

Given that Daenerys Targaryen has a mouthful of other titles at her disposal, we'll just call her the Mother of Dragons from now on.

Game of Thrones returns for its final season on April 14, 2019.

[h/t: Digital Spy]

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