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Universal Pictures

11 Movie Titles That Became Part of the Lexicon

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

It's no secret that our language patterns are influenced by the movies we watch (as you no doubt recall from the two-year period when people wouldn't stop talking like Borat). Movies are so influential, in fact, that a number of film titles have become part of the vocabulary even among people who haven't seen the movies in question. Some of these terms didn't exist until the movies created them; others were already in the language but were popularized or got new definitions as film titles. In some cases, the movies themselves are unremarkable or forgotten, yet they live on in our daily conversations.

1. Sophie's Choice (1982)

Even if you haven't seen the film that won Meryl Streep her first Best Actress Oscar, you probably know that a "Sophie's choice" is when you must choose between two equally desirable—or undesirable—options. (Though the movie is based on a very successful book, released in 1979, it was the film that propelled the term.) The term has a listing at Urban Dictionary, has made its way into medical literature, and is also, perhaps ill-advisedly, the name of several restaurants and shops. Now, really, to be a true Sophie's choice, the options must be mutually exclusive—choosing one means you can never have the other one, not just that it's postponed. So unless those boutiques are burning the clothes you don't buy today, they're not really offering "Sophie's choices."

2. Fatal Attraction (1987)

The phrase "fatal attraction" has been around for a while, generally with the self-evident meaning of being drawn to something that's bad for you. (From a 1952 Popular Science article: "Because water sometimes has a fatal attraction for children, James H. Robertson of North Hollywood, Calif., worried about unguarded swimming pools.") The film gave the term a very specific meaning; "fatal attraction" became shorthand for a romantic relationship that's physically dangerous.

3. Bucket List (2007)

"Bucket list" was a computing term long before the advent of the Morgan Freeman/Jack Nicholson film that your parents loved, but that's coincidental. The way we use the phrase now—to mean the list of things you want to do before you "kick the bucket"—comes straight from Justin Zackham's screenplay. (A Slate writer also found it in a 2004 novel; it's entirely possible that the novelist and Zackham came up with it independently of one another, or that one or both of them heard it somewhere and picked it up. At any rate, it clearly wasn't the novel that popularized the term.) "Bucket list" is canonized in the dictionary now (the ultimate achievement for a neologism), and is the basis for numerous websites devoted to helping people compile their own lists.

4. The Full Monty (1997)

This British expression of unknown origin (there are theories) has been around since the early 1980s, and means "the whole thing; everything." As with several of our other examples, the 1997 movie gave it a new, more specific definition: strippin' till you're nude. Four years later, "full monty" appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary with both definitions, usage having been boosted by the popular film. The nudity-oriented meaning is common in cheeky news headlines now: "Megan Rapinoe goes the full monty for the ESPN Body Issue," or "[Retired swimmer Michael] Klim goes the full monty."

5. Gaslight (1944)

Gaslight - verb (used with object): to cause (a person) to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation.

This fantastic verb isn't used much anymore, but it's been in dictionaries for decades. The source is a George Cukor-directed thriller starring Ingrid Bergman as a woman whose husband tells her she's imagining things that she claims to see in a musty old murder house, including the gaslights dimming by themselves. The movie was based on a 1938 play that had already been filmed once before (in 1940), but dictionaries cite the more famous 1944 incarnation as the inspiration for the verb "to gaslight." It's a useful word, especially when you consider how frequently gaslighting shows up as a plot device in fiction. (The title character of NBC's Hannibal is an expert gaslighter.)

6. Catfish (2010)

Sixty-six years after Gaslight came another useful word for a kind of deception, one that's unique to the 21st century. (Interestingly, "gaslight" and "catfish" were both nouns that got turned into verbs, too.) To "catfish" someone is to mislead them online by pretending to be someone or something you're not. It comes from a 2010 documentary about a New York photographer who discovers that the Michigan woman he's Facebook friends with has lied about, well, nearly everything. The film made only a medium-sized splash in the documentary world, but its title came to prominence in early 2013, when Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o's tragically deceased Internet girlfriend turned out not to have been real in the first place—a textbook example of catfishing. In a fortuitous coincidence, a Catfish series had debuted on MTV a few weeks before the Manti Te'o story broke, so the word was fresh in people's minds. News media picked it up immediately, using it in story after story after story.

7. Indecent Proposal (1993)

Before Robert Redford offered Woody Harrelson a million dollars to sleep with Demi Moore, "indecent proposal" showed up occasionally in court documents and case files as a legalese euphemism for any sort of obscene suggestion allegedly made by a defendant. (From a 1955 court martial: "Shortly thereafter another German and his female friend were stopped on the street by L. When his indecent proposal was again refused, L. struck the German in the head.") After the movie, though, enhanced by its new, specific definition (offering someone money to sleep with his wife), "indecent proposal" found its way into the mainstream. More than 20 years later, it still pops up in news stories, like this one about a London politician who tried to woo the opposing party by offering taxpayer-funded perks.

8. Thelma and Louise (1991)

Ridley Scott's bombastic feminist road-trip movie has become surprisingly useful shorthand for a number of things. It can refer to female friendship, as in the online travel community for women that's named after it, or the New York catering company actually headed by two women named Karen and Sandy. It can also mean (spoiler alert) a go-for-broke gambit that one assumes is a suicide mission, as in this rather frothy assertion that Obama is "going Thelma and Louise" in the last days of his presidency, or this Democratic analyst's opinion that trying to impeach Obama would be "the GOP 'Thelma and Louise' approach: Let's get in the car and drive off the cliff." And what do you know, it can also refer to women on a crime spree: "In their new video for 'Somethin' Bad,' [Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood] channel their inner Thelma and Louise robbing banks, stealing jewelry, and cheating several men out of millions." It's in the Urban Dictionary too, of course.

9. Groundhog Day (1993)

Until 1993, the phrase "Groundhog Day" meant February 2, the weird quasi-holiday where a woodchuck in Pennsylvania looks at his shadow to predict the future. To the extent that anyone said the words "Groundhog Day" at all, that's what they were talking about. But the movie changed all that. The story of a man who keeps reliving the same day over and over again gave rise to "groundhog day" as slang for any repetitive situation, especially one that you feel trapped in. From a recent New York Times Magazine story about Texas Gov. Rick Perry's humorous efforts to be self-deprecating about his disastrous 2012 presidential campaign: "Even so, Perry is a figure of substantial ego and pride, and it clearly bothers him to be trapped in such a humiliating 'Groundhog Day.'" Or here's The Atlantic on the sluggish economy: "The past five years have been a Groundhog Day recovery. Every day, we wake up hoping that this will be the day that the economy finally picks up. And every day, we wake up to ... find out that it hasn't." Sadly, the most common usage seems to be in stories about the never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East, which evoke the metaphor regularly.

10. You Got Served (2004)

The energetic dance-battle movie kickstarted a new cycle of films about street dancing, including the Step Ups and Stomp the Yard, and those probably helped bring about TV contests like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars. That's a powerful reach for a movie that only made $48 million worldwide. Even more notable is that the title entered the lexicon as an all-purpose declaration of triumph over one's opponents. Though it was mostly young city kids who said it, the term amusingly crossed over into the mainstream when adults started using it as a "hip" slang term for serving a subpoena. Witness this headline about a hypothetical lawsuit against House Republicans, or this one about filing suits against the United Nations.

11. Star Wars (1977)

This one had a short but vital lifespan in the American vernacular. In 1983, looking for a way to win the Cold War and assure victory in the event of a hot one, President Ronald Reagan announced a new defense system that he was very keen on, the basic idea of which was that we'd have stuff in space that would intercept Soviet missiles before they got to us. It was officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative, but critics who believed the plan to be impractical, if not impossible, called it "Star Wars." Yes, the title of the most beloved and influential film of its generation was used mockingly. It began with Sen. Ted Kennedy, who dismissed Reagan's proposals as "reckless Star Wars schemes" to The Washington Post, and the nickname caught on immediately. (It helped that Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech just two weeks earlier had already put pundits in a Star Wars kind of mood.) The defense program evolved, the Cold War ended, and the "Star Wars" designation faded over time. The movies are still a concern, obviously (have you been on the Internet today?), but to a certain generation of Americans, the title will always have an '80s-flavored second meaning.

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5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy
ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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iStock
The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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iStock

Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

chimp eating banana
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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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