The cultural reach of movies is enormous. Sometimes they even impact the language; here are 7 words that originated in movies.
The word ‘bombshell’ has a long history; it was coined in the 1700s alongside the invention of modern artillery, and in the 19th century was then applied to events of large, dramatic significance. Another usage, to describe an attractive woman, can be traced to the American actress Jean Harlow.
Harlow only had a short film career – she died of kidney failure, aged 26 – but is one of the most famous figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. A talented, naturalistic actress, the films she appeared in across the late 1920s and early 30s, were marketed by focussing on her good looks and sex appeal.
For the film ‘Platinum Blonde’, a romantic drama directed by Frank Capra, she was described in the advertising material as a ‘blonde bombshell’. The film was popular, and the label attached itself for the remainder of Harlow’s career. It has been used to describe good looking women, with an emphasis on sexuality, ever since.
To ‘Gaslight’ someone is to dupe them, to manipulate them, to trick them into believing something that you know isn’t true. It’s a common contemporary word, whose usage is only becoming more frequent. The root of the word, in this context, can be traced to the classic 1944 film ‘Gaslight’, starring Ingrid Bergman.
Bergman plays a wealthy, neurotic young woman, whose husband is trying to drive her insane, so he can claim her fortune for himself. He hides her personal belongings, stages eerie noises at night, and, when Bergman’s character is home by herself, has the gaslights in the house flare dramatically, to scare her.
To ‘gaslight’ someone is a term that has been used since the film’s release, and has become more popular in recent years.
‘Paparazzi’ are a common, and often much maligned, part of modern celebrity culture: the photographers who follow famous people around, and photograph them going about the everyday. The root of the word stems from the Federico Fellini classic, ‘La Dolce Vita’, from 1960.
‘La Dolce Vita’ – AKA, ‘The Sweet Life’ – follows world weary journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) over an eventful week, as he tracks down frivolous celebrity stories and tries to make sense of his life. Accompanying him, at times, is his photographer friend Paparazzo.
The film’s mix of iconic Italian locations (Trevi Fountain, St Peters), attractive actors (it was a star maker for Anita Ekberg, along with Mastroianni) and sophisticated tone struck a chord with critics and audiences; it won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for four Academy Awards, and is thought of as one of the defining films of the 1960s.
It’s influence was such that ‘Paparazzo’, pluralised to ‘Paparazzi’, entered common usage as a term for celebrity hunting photographers.
Phillip K. Dick’s classic sci fi novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, posits a future world where robots have become a ubiquitous feature of everyday life. In the novel they are called Androids, or ‘Andy’s’. For the film adaptation ‘Blade Runner’, produced in 1982, screenwriter David Peoples wanted a new, more scientific sounding term.
He called his daughter Risa, then studying biochemistry at UCLA, to brainstorm ideas, during which she described the process of cloning as one of ‘replication’. One of them then suggested ‘replicant’, as a term for a robot. Peoples recalled in an interview, ‘One of us came up with it; she thinks it was me, and I think it was her.’
The film was not especially successful on release, but its reputation has grown enormously in the ensuing decades. ‘Blade Runner’ is now regarded as one of the definitive sci fi movies, and replicant is a term used to describe robots, across popular culture.
Toast, the food item, has been around for as long as we have been eating bread. But to use the term in a threatening way, as in ‘you’re toast!’, is much more recent.
At the climax of the 1984 comedy smash ‘Ghostbusters’, our heroes face off against a pair of god-like entities on top of a Central Park apartment building. When one of them blasts the Ghostbusters with energy beams, Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), pissed off, says, “All right, this chick is toast!”
The line was a slight variation on what was written in the script, which called for Murray to say “I’m gonna turn this guy into toast.” The more direct line from Murray, an ad-lib, is both more metaphoric, and threatening. The Oxford English dictionary lists the film as the origin of the usage of toast, meaning ‘dead’.
And the runaway success of the film ensured this usage became wide, shortly afterwards.
6. Bucket List
A phrase rather than a word, but I was actually astonished to learn that ‘Bucket List’ is derived from the 2007 comedy film, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, and not the other way round.
A ‘Bucket List’ is like a wish list; things that you would like to achieve or experience, before your demise. In the film, Freeman and Nicholson are two terminally ill men who decide to fulfil their dreams. In best movie fashion, they become buddies along the way.
It seems like such a well known phrase would have to pre-date so recent a movie, but the film is where the expression originates. Screenwriter Justin Zackman, working out what activities the two characters would attempt, had a list titled ‘Things to do before they kick the bucket.’ As he searched for a catchy title for the movie, he truncated this to ‘The Bucket List.’ The film was a surprising success, grossing $175 million at the box office, and the phrase lodged in popular culture.
The phrase, ‘kicking the bucket’, meaning to die, is much older, and dates from the 16th century. In this context, a ‘bucket’ was a beam that pigs were hung from before they were slaughtered, and the kicking was a reference to their death throes.
‘Catfish’ is a low budget, 2010 documentary, detailing an online relationship between Nev, a 20 something New Yorker, and Abby Pierce, a child prodigy he befriends online. But what starts as a profile of a prolific talent, Abby paints remarkably sophisticated pictures, turns into something quite different.
As the film develops, Nev discovers that ‘Abby Pierce’ is actually the fictitious, online persona of the woman he thought was the child’s mother, Angela. And not the only one; Abby’s half sister, Megan, who Nev had also become friendly with on Facebook, was just another fake profile. Angela is a woman with a host of problems, who had created new online personalities to try and escape her daily existence.
The film was more of an arthouse favourite than a big hit, but received strong reviews, and spawned a TV show. ‘Catfishing’ entered common usage as a term, referring to the practice of maintaining a misleading online presence.