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6 Idioms That Came From Film And Theater

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Chances are, you’ve probably used an idiom from film or theater in an everyday context. There's blockbuster, close-up, and double take, to name a few. Others, such as cleavage or gaslighting are less well-known. In his new book, Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes from Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, journalist Josh Chetwynd presents a robust list of these terms. Here are the film-related origins of just six of the hundreds of terms included in the book.

1. CLEAVAGE

As far back as the 19th century, geologists would refer to a separation between rocks or crystals as cleavage. This makes sense, since cleaving means “to separate." In the 1940s however, American movie censors adopted the term in order to replace one euphemism (décolletage) with another. In 1945, a British film called The Wicked Lady could not secure distribution due to the actresses' dresses being deemed too revealing for U.S. audiences. The public was informed of this new terminology in a 1946 TIME Magazine article titled “Cleavage and the Code." The article informed readers that “cleavage” is a “Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress’ bosom into two distinct sections." Within a few years, the explanation for the euphemism became unnecessary for American readers.

2. GANGBUSTERS

When a consumer product attains great commercial success, it’s not uncommon to say it is “selling like gangbusters." The term originates with a 1936 radio series that debuted on CBS called Gang Busters. The name refers to the actual gang busters in the show: FBI agents that would break up organized crime syndicates. The radio show was on the air for over 20 years and eventually led to TV series, movie serials, and even comic books with the same name. The franchise’s notoriety would lead to the gangbusters idiom being coined to describe this phenomenon of mass appeal.

3. GASLIGHTING

Oxford Dictionaries defines a gaslighter as someone who “Manipulate[s] (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity." While this particular form of psychological abuse probably goes back a long way, it owes its name to a 1938 play called Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the U.S.). The play was later twice made into a movie, both called Gaslight, one produced in the UK in 1940 and another much more well known Hollywood version in 1944. The American version starred Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her big-screen debut. The title derives from a scene that includes an incident where protagonist Paula (played by Bergman) sees the gaslights in her home dim and flicker for no apparent reason. Her husband Gregory Anton (played by Boyer) insists this is all in Paula’s head.

4. IN SYNC

Merriam-Webster defines being in sync as “a state in which two or more people or things agree with or match one another and work together properly.” One of the early technological challenges that filmmakers had to solve was how to make a movie’s audio match the moving images on the screen. In sync was an abbreviation for the effort to make the sound and motion pictures work “in synchrony," and later “in synchronization." This was not an easy feat. Celluloid film burned easily, and individual frames would often be removed from the reel. To the naked eye, this was not perceptible, but it would lead to the sound being ... out of sync. The solution came in 1924, when the sound strip was first placed directly on the film reel; this is what we now call the soundtrack.

5. ONE-NIGHT STAND

In the 1870s, a one-night stand was what people called a theatrical production that performed for a single night and then moved on. There were one-night stand companies and one-night stand theaters all across the country. By the 1930s, however, one-night stand had become a euphemism for an ephemeral tryst. It’s not entirely clear what happened in those 60 years to cause the transformation, but there are some theories. In Mark Twain’s 1889 work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, King Arthur decides to go out in disguise to see how his subjects live. This plan is referred to as “only a one-night stand.” Language expert Martin Harrison believes the origin may go back even further—at least in part. In his book, The Language of Theater, Harrison writes that the word stand has been “a colloquial term for the male erection” since the 16th century.

6. QUICKIE

Today, we use the term quickie to describe a brief bout of sexual activity. However, it was first popularized in the 1920s as a term for a movie produced over the course of a mere two weeks. Film industry gossip columnist Louella Parsons popularized the term in a 1927 column. “Hollywood is in the throes of the ‘quickies,'" Parsons wrote. Even some of the biggest names would sign on to do quickies. “This illegitimate offspring of the more dignified feature production manages to get some of our best players,” she added. According to Chetwynd, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd invested in quickies, which were quite lucrative. A quickie could cost just $40,000 to make and generate $200,000 ($545,000 and $2,700,000 respectively today, adjusted for inflation).

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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