11 Movie Titles That Became Part of the Lexicon

Image credit: 
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.

More from mental_floss...

July 25, 2014 - 2:00pm
submit to reddit