10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. POINDEXTER

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. EYE CANDY

This phrase meaning any thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. RIBBIT

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. SORRY ABOUT THAT

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. CROMULENT

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. FIVE-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. GOMER

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. COWABUNGA

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. HAR DE HAR

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. SPAM

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.

9 French Insults You Should Know

Rawf8/iStock via Getty Images
Rawf8/iStock via Getty Images

Ah, France—internationally synonymous with fine wines, fashion, and elegant cheeses. As it turns out, the country is home to some pretty fine insults, too, as the list below demonstrates. If you need some more ways to express your distaste in a foreign language, we've also got you covered with insults in German. (If historical insults are more your speed, you can peruse these old English insults, or learn how to level a sick burn like Teddy Roosevelt.)

1. Va te faire cuire un oeuf // "Go cook yourself an egg."

Figuratively speaking, this means “leave me alone.” Historically, the idea is that men would criticize their wives cooking dinner, who would then respond, "Go fry yourself an egg"—reminding their mates that they're incapable of cooking anything other than an egg.

2. Bête comme ses pieds // "You are as stupid as your feet."

The feet are the furthest part of the body from the brain, so supposedly, the most stupid. Besides, have you ever seen smart feet?

3. Péter plus haut de son cul // "To fart higher than your ass."

If you have gas in your stomach and try to expel it above your behind, you will fail. It's just too ambitious. This phrase means that a person is arrogant, or thinks they are able to do impossible things. They're a show-off, basically.

4. Poule mouillée // "Wet chicken"

Chickens are not known for their bravery. Especially when it rains, they try to hide, as ridiculous as that may be. A wet chicken is someone who is afraid of everything.

5. Mange tes morts // "Eat your dead."

You use this insult when you are very mad at someone. The original meaning is "You have no respect." It's said to have started among the Yenish people—a European ethnic minority with nomadic origins.

6. Sac à merde // "Bag of sh**"

No need for explanation right? Speaks for itself. Often used while driving.

7. Tête de noed // "Knot face"

Someone stupid. Literally, the knot refers to the tip of the penis, but in essence the term has a meaning similar to (but even ruder) than the English dickhead.

8. Couillon/Couillonne // "Little testicle"

A relatively mild insult that means something like "idiot" in English.

9. Con comme une valise sans poignée // "As stupid as a suitcase without a handle."

What good is a suitcase if you can't carry it? In a similar vein, "con comme un balais" means "as dumb as a broom."

15 Slang Terms You Need to Know

iStock/Sashatigar
iStock/Sashatigar

It’s possible to get the pants from too much honeyfuggling. Spark some conversation with these vintage and regional terms.

1. The Term: Hurkle-Durkle

The Definition: According to John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 200 years ago to hurkle-durkle meant “To lie in bed, or to lounge after it is time to get up or go to work.” Basically, that urge we all fight every weekday morning.

2. The Term: Got the Morbs

The Definition: A phrase from 1880 meaning “temporary melancholia,” according to Passing English of the Victorian Era.

3. The Term: Stubby-Holder

The Definition: An Australian slang term for an insulated beverage holder. (A stubby is Aussie for a 375-milliliter bottle of beer, by the way.)

4. The Term: To Poke Bogey

The Definition: A 19th-century slang word for tricking someone. No one’s quite sure where the phrase came from, but it could have its roots in words for ghosts—bogey as in bogeyman, and poke may be related to an old English word for spirit.

5. The Term: Lizzie Lice

The Definition: According to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of the Underworld, this term for a policeman who patrols in cars dates to the 1930s. You might not want to use it when you get pulled over, though. (Rat bag, for a plainclothes detective, may also be unwise.)

6. The Term: Peerie-Winkie

The Definition: Peerie is an old Scottish word meaning “little,” and a peerie-winkie is the little finger or toe. If you’re looking for a fun way to refer to your hands, use the word daddles.

7. The Term: Got the Pants

The Definition: This phrase, according to Passing English of the Victorian Era, means “panting from over-exertion.” After you take the stairs, you get the pants!

8. The Term: Toad-Strangler

The Definition: Those who live in the Gulf states are probably familiar with this term that describes a sudden, and heavy, rain.

9. The Term: Honeyfuggle

The Definition: This word technically means to deceive or to cheat, but according to the Dictionary of Regional American English, it’s also used for public displays of affection.

10. The Term: Whooperups

The Definition: A Victorian term for “inferior, noisy singers” that is just as applicable at modern-day karaoke joints.

11. The Term: Degomble

The Definition: The Antarctic Dictionary defines this as “to disencumber of snow,” usually when coming in from outside.

12. The Term: Play at Rumpscuttle and Clapperdepouch

The Definition: This 1684 phrase has nothing to do with playing games and everything to do with, uh, getting it on. You can also play at rantum-scantum (1667), couch quail (1521), or tray trippee of a die (1660).

13. The Term: Abstain from Beans

The Definition: Here’s one to keep on hand during family gatherings: According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this is a phrase meaning “to desist from politics.” As Plutarch explained in the circa 110 CE book Of the Training of Children, the term meant “to keep out of public offices” because “anciently the choice of the officers of state was made by beans.” Literally or figuratively, it’s probably a good rule for parties.

14. The Term: Cwtch

The Definition: A very Welsh term for a hug that makes you feel warm inside. (It rhymes with “butch.”)

15. The Term: Hand in One’s Dinner Pail

The Definition: Well, maybe you don’t want an occasion to use this phrase, at least in its original meaning—it’s slang from 1937 for death. Later, the phrase would come to mean “to resign from one’s job; to stop what one is doing.”

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