Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

When Life Imitates the Movies: From "Gaslighting" to "Catfishing"

If you've been following the strange saga of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, then you've likely come across the term "catfishing" to describe the type of prank he fell victim to, in which a romantic interest turns out to be nothing more than a fabricated online identity. The term comes from the 2010 documentary "Catfish," but as I describe in my latest Boston Globe column, it's not the first time that a cinematic depiction has spawned a new verb.

In the movie "Catfish," a young fellow named Nev gradually falls for a woman named Megan, who he gets to know online and over the phone. But the Megan that he's talking to turns out to be a concoction of the real Megan's mother, Amanda. Nev and his fellow filmmakers eventually confront Amanda face-to-face and the whole fabrication is exposed. Amanda's husband Vince provides the "catfish" anecdote that gives the film its title:

They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They'd keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.

As I say in the Globe column (and as I explained to Slate), this "catfish" story is an old one, dating back a century, and has generally served as a religious parable. The "Catfish" documentary put a new spin on it, with an MTV reality show of the same name further solidifying the connection between "catfish" and online romantic pranking. And as so often happens with new words, the noun "catfish" (referring to the person pulling the prank) became a verb, so that by the time the Manti Te'o story came around, "catfishing" was the go-to term to describe the odd situation.

Soon after the Te'o story broke, Yale University linguist Laurence R. Horn wrote on the American Dialect Society mailing list that "catfishing" reminded him of another verbal noun derived from a movie: "gaslighting," which comes from the 1944 film "Gaslight." It was actually the second film adaptation of the play "Gaslight," but it's the one that people remembered, in part due to great performances by Charles Boyer as the dastardly husband, Ingrid Bergman as the wife who thinks she's going insane, and a young Angela Lansbury as the scheming maid. It turns out that Bergman's character isn't really going crazy — as she eventually realizes thanks to a Scotland Yard inspector (Joseph Cotten) and some flickering gaslights, her husband is toying with her sanity because he's trying to find some valuable jewels in her possession. "Gaslighting" thus came to refer to playing this sort of mind game.

Horn wondered on the ADS list if there were other similar verbs made from movie titles:

What other cultural-phenomena-denoting verbs (or verbal nouns) derived from movie themes on the model of "Gaslight(ing)" and "Catfish(ing)" are there? For example, I could imagine someone being "Vertigoed" the way Jimmy Stewart's character memorably was in Hitchcock's movie, but I haven't come across it, except in an internet meme referring to the mashup of various movies--actually done for real in "The Artist", as Kim Novak complained afterward, and just for fun online for "Star Wars", "Zoolander', etc., in each case just involving the setting of the spooky Bernard Herrmann music from the Hitchcock movie to the action of the other movies.

I found another recent example in a 2010 episode of the TV sitcom "Modern Family." The plot involves the character Haley carrying out an elaborate deception on her parents, after which her father says, "Holy crap, we've been Shawshanked." That's a reference to "The Shawshank Redemption," which involves a convict who plots his escape from jail (and his revenge on the warden) over a period of twenty years.

An even stranger example was mentioned in an LA Weekly article about conspiracy theories involving music videos. The article quotes the Fortean Times warning that "the Marilyn Monroe look" is "proof that a woman has been 'Stepforded' and no longer has any individuality." That's an allusion to "The Stepford Wives," a 1972 novel that became a popular film in 1975 (and a not-so-popular remake in 2004). In the fictional suburb of Stepford, men have substituted their wives with compliant robots. The Oxford English Dictionary now includes "Stepford" as an adjective meaning "robotic; docile; obedient; acquiescent; (also) uniform; attractive but lacking in individuality, emotion, or thought," though they haven't noted the verb yet.

Can you think of any other movie-titles-turned-verbs? Let us know in the comments below!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.