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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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Words
How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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language
The Evolution of "Two" in the Indo-European Language Family
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The Indo-European language family includes most of the languages of Europe as well as many languages in Asia. There is a long research tradition that has shown, though careful historical comparison, that languages spanning a huge linguistic and geographical range, from French to Greek to Russian to Hindi to Persian, are all related to each other and sprung from a common source, Proto-Indo-European. One of the techniques for studying the relationship of the different languages to each other is to look at the similarities between individual words and work out the sound changes that led from one language to the next.

This diagram, submitted to Reddit by user IronChestplate1, shows the word for two in various Indo-European languages. (The “proto” versions, marked with an asterisk, are hypothesized forms, built by working backward from historical evidence.) The languages cluster around certain common features, but the words are all strikingly similar, especially when you consider the words for two in languages outside the Indo-European family: iki (Turkish), èjì (Yoruba), ni (Japanese), kaksi (Finnish), etc. There are many possible forms two could take, but in this particular group of languages it is extremely limited. What are the chances of that happening by accident? Once you see it laid out like this, it doesn’t take much to put *dwóh and *dwóh together.

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