Ya think movies don’t shape language? Fuhgeddaboutit!
The 83rd Academy Awards are being held this year on February 27th and while the influence of movies on society is undeniable,(i.e., black movie presidents preceded Obama) their power to shape language is often forgotten. When Rhett Butler tells Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” it marks the first time the word “damn” was allowed to be voiced either on the radio or in a film. Also popularized this same year was the expression, “Are you a man or a mouse?” asked of Jimmy Stewart by Carole Lombard in the movie Made for Each Other. This expression was probably influenced by John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men; Steinbeck, in turn, borrowed this title from a line in Robert Burns’ 1785 poem To a Mouse: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.”
Even before the late 30s, however, expressions from movies were tunneling into our vernacular, albeit not always in the exact form uttered on the silver screen. The expression “Slip into something more comfortable” was originally rendered as “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” by the femme fatale played by Jean Harlow in the 1930 film Hell’s Angels. In Duck Soup released in 1927, Oliver Hardy says “here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into,” not “fine mess,” as it has more often been rendered. Credit Hollywood and not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for penning “Elementary, my dear Watson.” The line was first used in The Return of Sherlock Holmes released in 1929 and became popularized through subsequent film versions starring Basil Rathbone.
Many expressions from movies display a cool insouciance or an attitude of defiance that explains why they so readily become buzzwords, particularly for young males. Some examples of such are “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” (The Godfather-1966); “Go ahead, make my day” (Sudden Impact -1983), and “You’re a funny guy. I like you .…That’s why I kill you, last.” (Commando-1985).
Also, movie dialogue actually helps us express ourselves. Let’s say you want to convey frustration. You could do no better than Peter Finch’s rant in the 1976 movie Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not taking any more.” Looking for a cheesy way to express love?, try “You are the cheese to my macaroni.” (Juno-2007) If you want a catchphrase that explains the need for an ambitious plan to have a large initial investment, try, “If you build it, they will come.”(Field of Dreams -1989) Movie phrases also provide us with shorthand expressions. In 1996, for example, Jerry Maguire gave us a pithy way of saying that rather than making things complicated, one should merely do what is required: “Show me the money.” Sometimes new expressions come into our vernacular from films regardless of the context of the film being lost. A case in point is Robert De Niro’s line from the 1976 film Taxi Driver, “You talkin’ to me?” is usually stated in a whimsical way. However, in the movie, De Niro plays a deranged taxi driver Travis Bickle who taunts himself in a mirror repeating in a belligerent mantra, “You talkin’ to me?”
Movies also have provided us with expressions that affirm our deepest desires. The line “There’s no place like home” was popularized in The Wizard of Oz. Thanks to the 1977 film Star Wars in which Ben ‘Obi-wan’ Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker, “May the force be with you,” heathens, like me, now have a secular blessing in our lexicon.
Ironically, a pair of movies featuring mobspeak help give us a crash course in semantics. In the 1990 movie Goodfellas, Tommy (Joe Pesci) asks for a semantic clarification after he is told by Henry (Ray Liotta) that he is “funny”: “Funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? … How da fuck am I funny? What da fuck is so funny about me?”
Another mob movie 1997’s Donny Brasco, features Johnny Depp in the title role as an undercover police officer taping the illegal activities of gangsters. He is asked by a fellow officer listening to the tape about the meaning of the ever-repeated expression, “fuhgeddaboutit,” and provides the following analysis: “ ‘Fuhgeddaboutit.’ It’s like if you agree with someone, like ‘Raquel Welch is one great piece of ass’- Fuhgedaddoutit! But then if you disagree like ‘A Lincoln is better than a Cadillac’? -Fuhgeddaboutit! But then if something is the greatest thing in the world, like those peppers-Fuhgeddaboutit! But it also means ‘Go to hell,’ like if I say to Paulie, ‘You have a one-inch pecker,’ and Paulie says, ‘Fuhgeddaboutit!’ Sometimes it just means ‘Forget about it.’ ”
And you thought television's The Sopranos popularized the term “fuhgeddaboutit?” Fuhgeddaboutit!
Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words