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Archive for March 9th, 2012

Recently I’ve started paying attention to various ways our everyday language is strange (being in a place where people commonly don’t quite understand one another even though we can all speak “English” does that to you). Our use of expressions and idioms, for instance, must confuse some people not from the US to no end. I give you: “That joke kills me!” as an example. It’s extreme sounding if you don’t know that it’s meant as a metaphor.

I’m not talking about accents, either, though I will say it took me a minute to tell the nice Australian gentleman at the zoo yesterday where to find the “taoy-gahrs” that were enjoying the rain as large, stripey cats who like getting wet do. Once I realized he wasn’t talking about a type of turtle, it helped a lot.

Back to my point, though. One of the things I’ve noticed lately is how many pop culture references we make every day and it got me wondering: How many things do we say all the time without even thinking about its original reference point?

Example: today I used the phrase “Alrighty then!” and then had to stop and think because it struck me that I was quoting something but couldn’t think what. It didn’t matter because it’s become a common expression and no one finds it strange, nor do they find it funny because unless you ask someone to really think about it, they won’t come to the realization that I’ve just quoted Ace Ventura any faster than I did. I mean, that movie is old by pop culture’s standards. A lot of people haven’t seen it. And there are people like me who haven’t seen it (or haven’t seen the whole thing) and know it best because of its being referenced in pop culture.

There are a lot of phrases we use that are from movies, TV shows, music, and what have you for which I’m sure the vast majority of people don’t even know the original things being referenced. There are also things where I’m guessing the reference is better known than the original thing itself.

Other examples:

  • “Wink wink, nudge nudge” is used to humorously make someone aware that you’re hinting at something. It comes from Monty Python (as a huge number of our pop cultural references do) and an innuendo-laden sketch from Flying Circus.
  • “Beam me up, Scotty” is maybe one of the more famous examples of this; though most people know it’s a Star Trek reference, most people don’t know it wasn’t actually said in the original series. Although for knowing that, I might be one of the people being targeted by this (often making-fun-of-geeky-people) phrase.
  • The Ninja Turtles are, of course, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, and Rafael. They are all famous Renaissance artists, but my guess is that most (I’m being optimistic and giving people credit for knowing Michelangelo and possibly da Vinci, if they realize that it’s that Leonardo) folks think of the Ninja Turtles first.
  • “Drinking the Koolaid” is another one that gets used, usually to mean that you’ve bought into an idea. I doubt many people in my generation or younger know it’s referring to the cult leader who got his followers to drink a flavored something and commit mass suicide, which was essentially mass murder. Not a good reference, though it has now become so commonplace that the dark edge has been removed from the expression itself. Reading about what happened is, of course, still horrifying.
  • Just the other day I said, “What we’ve got is a failure to communicate,” and received a blank look from someone. I think people still use and get this one, but it’s definitely not a younger-generation expression.

There are, of course, others, but you get my point. Some are even better known than the things they themselves were referencing.

How many things do we say every day that make no sense out of our cultural context, and how many more don’t mean the same thing any more? Expressions and slang are always evolving our language, and have been since the roots of English began over a thousand years ago. It’s interesting to see it happening in the here and now, though, and not just in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which starts the shift from Old to Middle English).

Yeah, I’m a nerd.

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