Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Roll Another One, Just Like the Other One

One day last month I was listening to a recording of oral arguments from a recent US Supreme Court case. If you're a long-time reader of the Lounge, you'll know that this is one of the Loungeurs' favorite pastimes. I was a little surprised to hear this comment from Justice Nel Gorsuch, addressing a counselor for the plaintiff in the case Agusto Niz-Chavez v. William Barr:

It sure seems a little bit like Pereira groundhog day to me.  I guess I'm curious what your argument — what your response is to the government's argument that it should just win under Chevron step 2 at a minimum?

The quotation presents semantic challenges to anyone who doesn't follow the court, so let me first gloss a couple of things. Periera and Chevron both refer to earlier cases decided by the icourt. Essentially the justice is asking whether guidance provided in the opinions on those cases adequately answers the question currently in hand.

For present purposes, what interests me about Gorsuch's words are not the previous cases referred to but his use of groundhog day. A fluent speaker of English who was not a native speaker and was not familiar with Groundhog Day would sensibly consult a dictionary (or perhaps the VisualThesaurus) and there learn that Groundhog Day was February 2nd, a day upon which "if the groundhog emerges and sees his shadow on this day, there will be 6 more weeks of winter." Said speaker would still be in a mist as to what Justice Gorsuch was talking about.

A native English speaker, on the other hand, or anyone familiar with American popular culture would know that the justice referred not to the day, but to the 1993 film starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, in which a man wakes up every morning only to find that the calendar has not advanced and that he is forced to relive the same day (February 2nd) all over again. The hugely successful movie extended the use of groundhog day to refer to vexing experiences or situations that seem to repeat themselves.

The same day that I was listening to this oral argument I wrote an email to a friend, in which I described someone as being a Gollum-like character. I did this knowing that Gollum was not in any ordinary dictionary but that my friend would know what I was talking about, because essentially everyone has seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films and knows that Gollum is a character so consumed by obsessional craving for a particular thing ("the Ring") that his life is tragically warped by it.

So here, two very different contexts with a common theme. Both the esteemed justice and I incorporated into our speech metaphors drawn from popular films, confident that our audiences would get the referents. Our confidence is based on an assumption of cultural literacy: fluency with the body of knowledge shared by members of a culture that enables them to communicate volumes of information in shorthand by use of words, phrases, gestures, and other communicative features that call into play meanings much larger than the words (etc.) themselves might suggest.

This got me to wondering: how many of these movie-inspired memes circulate freely in English? Which of them do people immediately recognize as being associated with a particular film, and are there any so firmly embedded in English that you understand them without having seen the film or knowing that it came from a film?

First stop: etymologies in the Oxford English Dictionary. Of the more than 200 etymologies that contain the word film only a small handful are for words that interest us here — words or phrases like the ones above that have metaphoric use in everyday English. Perhaps you can think of others I don't talk about here, and if you do, please leave them in the comments.

The place of honor among such words is shared by two relative old-timers. First, paparazzo, more frequently encountered in the plural as paparazzi. English speakers know that the word designates opportunistic celebrity photographers. But my hunch is that younger readers don't know that it comes from the surname of such a photographer in the 1959 film La Dolce Vita by Italian director Federico Fellini.

Sharing the honor with paparazzi is gaslight (the verb), meaning "cause (someone) to doubt their sanity by staging odd events that have no rational explanation." Gaslight is the title of a 1938 play in which a husband gaslights his wife; it was subsequently made into films, a 1940 British one and a 1944 American one. The figurative use first appeared in the 1950s but has increased greatly in usage in the 21st century.

Film characters (besides Paparazzo) that appear in OED etymologies and enjoy some figurative deployment in contemporary English include these three: Mrs. Robinson, Rambo, and Zelig. Do you know the films? If you don't, do you recognize the meanings?

I expect no one has trouble with Rambo. I can smugly declare that I have not seen any of the films starring Sylveser Stallone as an alpha-male vigilante. You don't really need to see the films; popular culture is pretty well saturated with the image.

By Yoni S.Hamenahem - Yoni S.Hamenahem, CC BY-SA 3.0

Would you use Mrs. Robinson figuratively? It's a challenge to find actual citations of such use since there are so many Mrs. Robinsons that are not her — the middle-aged wife in the 1967 film The Graduate who seduces her daughter' fiancé Even more obscure but much easier to find in figurative use is Zelig, based on the Woody Allen character Leonard Zelig, who can change his appearance and persona to suit his surroundings, and seems to participate in important historical events while not being much noticed.

One film enjoys the honor of supercharging the productivity of a combining form, and that film is Ghostbusters. The comedy film (for the dozen or so people who haven't seen it) was about a group of hapless paranormal researchers who go from being ridiculed to saving New York from otherworldly destruction. Buster existed as a standalone word and a combining form before this, but the movie seemed to give it a renewed license.  We can credit the movie for influencing the formation of words such as mythbusters, newsbusters, and adbusters.

In a classic scene from Casablanca, Captain Renault (played by Claude Raines) saves the skin of Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart, the actual perpetrator) with these lines: "Major Strasser's been shot. Round up the usual suspects."

We can thank that film for giving us the title of the 1995 neo-noir thriller, The Usual Suspects. and while we're on this meta-level of film words living on in other films, there's Bogart himself. His typical screen appearance, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, inspired the lyric of the song "Don't Bogart that Joint," immortalized in the 1969 cult film Easy Rider.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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