Lights, camera, lexicon: the language of films in the OED

Lights, camera, lexicon: the language of films in the OED

Film, that great popular art form of the twentieth century, is a valuable window on the evolving English language, as well as a catalyst of its evolution. Film scripts form an important element of the OED’s reading programme, and the number of citations from films in the revised OED multiplies with each quarterly update. The earliest film cited in the revised OED, The Headless Horseman (1922), actually dates from the silent era (the quotation is taken from the text of the titles which explain the on-screen action), but most quotations from film scripts represent spoken English, and as such provide crucial evidence for colloquial and slang usages which are under-represented in print.

Scripts as sources

It is therefore no surprise that, although the films cited in OED represent a wide range of genres and topics, movies about teenagers are especially prominent. The film most frequently cited thus far in the OED revision, with 11 quotations, is American Graffiti, George Lucas’s 1972 reminiscence of coming of age in the early 1960s; second place is a tie between Heathers (1988), the classic black comedy of American high school, and Purely Belter (2000), a British film about teenagers trying to scrape together the money to buy season tickets for Newcastle United FC. But the impact of cinema on English is not limited simply to providing lexicographical evidence for established usages. From the mid-twentieth century, the movies as mass culture have actually shaped our language, adding new words to the lexicon and propelling subcultural usages into the mainstream.

The use of a word in a single film script can be enough to spark an addition to the lexicon. Take for instance shagadelic, adj., the absurd expression of approval used by Mike Myers in Austin Powers (1997), which has gained a currency independent of that film series, warranting its inclusion in OED in 2007.  A more venerable film-based coinage is twitterpated, adj. (love-struck, besotted; silly or scatter-brained), which was first heard in the 1942 animated feature Bambi.  Even where a particular usage exists prior to appearing in film, a prominent movie can catapult it into general usage. Would the term slacker n. (Additions, March 2001)—a member of a generation characterized by apathy, aimlessness, and lack of ambition—ever have achieved mid-1990’s ubiquity without Richard Linklater’s film of the same name?

Not every notable utterance in a film actually appears in the script. It is to the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters that we owe the menacing potential of the word toast, n.1 (Additions, December 2002). The memorable line, spoken by Bill Murray as he prepares to incinerate a baddie with a laser, is ‘this chick is toast.’ That line was ad-libbed; the closest thing in the script is the less memorable turn of phrase, ‘I’m gonna turn this guy into toast.’ A similar example may be found in OED’s entry for bada-bing, int. The first example researchers could track down of the headword form was the immortal line spoken by James Caan (as Sonny Corleone) in the Godfather (1972): ‘You’ve gotta get up close like this and bada-bing! you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.’ This, too, does not appear in the script, requiring OED to cite from a transcript of the film dialogue instead.

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The power of film

The lexical impact of films isn’t limited to words actually spoken in them. Certain scenes and ideas from cinema are so vivid and compelling that they inspire neologisms. This is the case with bunny-boiler (at bunny, n.2), a jealous or obsessive woman whose behaviour in pursuit of a former or intended partner is considered desperate or dangerous. That phrase does not actually occur in Fatal Attraction (1987), but it alludes to the notorious scene in that movie in which the character played by Glenn Close boils alive a pet rabbit belonging to her ex-partner’s daughter. Similarly, the verb gaslight (to manipulate a person into questioning his or her own sanity) comes from the title of the 1944 film (based on a 1940 play) Gaslight, in which a man causes his wife to think she is descending into madness by making the lights in their home flicker and dim unexpectedly. Another word owed to film, but so firmly ensconced in English as to have become fully independent of its allusive origins, is paparazzo, n, which comes to us via Italian, from the name of the society photographer in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

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The Oscars: Best Neologism

With Academy Awards season upon us, it is worth considering whether there is any relationship between critical acclaim and lexical impact. As the examples above show, the Academy’s record on choosing language-impact powerhouses is spotty, at best. For every instance like Citizen Kane (winner of the 1941 award for Best Original Screenplay, first citation for to know where the bodies are buried and cf. rosebud n. 4) there is one like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (first citation for party on, no nominations). But the Academy would be ill-advised to institute an award for Best Neologism. Unlike costumes, acting, or sound editing, the qualities that make a lexical item a success or failure can be evaluated only with the passage of time.

And what of the term Oscar, as applied to the Academy Awards themselves? According to OED’s entry, the most commonly accepted story is that the iconic statuette reminded Margaret Herrick, who eventually became executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of her relative Oscar Pierce, a grower of wheat and fruit now immortalized in the glamorous awards that bear his name.

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