via Project Gutenberg
The dreary, sad existence of Ebenezer Scrooge that Charles Dickens paints in A Christmas Carol might not seem a fount of memorable images and phrases, but the references found in its pages are not limited strictly to the holiday season. (For example, when we call someone a “Scrooge” it’s synonymous for calling them a grouchy miser, regardless of the time of year.)
The characters and plot of the classic novel have become so ubiquitous that adaptations, especially during this time of year, are a dime a dozen. There are relatively faithful adaptations — from the likes of Mr. Magoo, The Muppets, and Jim Carrey — as well as departures such as Scrooged or even, some could argue, It’s a Wonderful Life.
“Love is blind.”
“Heart of hearts.”
“Green eyed monster.”
“Break the ice.”
What in the world do any of these phrases have to do with the others? Well, if you’re familiar with the tales of Romeo and Juliet, Prince Hamlet, King Lear or Julius Caesar, you can probably guess.
All of these phrases, and many, many more, that are common in our everyday use are attributed to perhaps the most influential figure in the English language. That’s right, The Bard, William Shakespeare.
One of the highlights of my college career is that once I was able to quote a Saturday Night Live sketch in an academic paper. (It was the “Firelight” sketch, specifically, but darn WordPress won’t let me embed Hulu videos.)
The paper itself was about the way, over the last two hundred years, our culture has “dumbed down” the story and lesson of Frankenstein. This seems pretty relevant to the blog, so I thought I’d talk a bit about how the reverse of media-changing-language is sometimes true. The novel Frankenstein deals with some pretty weighty stuff — science vs. nature, unchecked ambition, revenge, isolation, the pros and cons of living in Switzerland — you know, serious matters. But, you wouldn’t know that based on the way we throw around the word “Frankenstein” in common conversation.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is something of an reference-generating machine. This piece of children’s literature and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass have been alluded to more often than can probably be accounted for in the hundred and fifty-odd years since its initial publication.
The story has been retold on film as Alice in Wonderland (with varying levels of faithfulness to the original novel) numerous times (including a great, recently restored version from 1903) and has also been alluded to in adaptations and has influenced television and music as well.
When words become commonplace enough, it’s easy to assume that they have always been used, or that they are some how intrinsically related to whatever they refer to, but in reality a lot of the terminology we use comes from literature. Case in point:
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In addition to that set of words, according to the OED, the term “robot” was originally a “reference to the mass-produced workers in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920) which are assembled from artificially synthesized organic material.”
After all, words don’t just appear out of thin air with a predefined meaning. Someone has to come up with them at some point.
Are there any words, expressions, or phrases that you’ve been surprised to discover come from a book, movie, play or poem? (And don’t worry, Shakespeare will get his own discussion.)
You’re probably at least somewhat familiar with a certain young wizard who goes by the name of Harry Potter, right? Of course you are! What, have you been living under a rock in the Chamber of Secrets?!
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The Harry Potter franchise has become one of the most successful literary (and film) series of all time in the course of the last decade-or-so, and along with that comes, of course, the adoption of phrases and terms from the media phenomenon into our vernacular.
Michael Scott, and Leslie Knope aren’t the only ones referencing the world of Harry Potter in his common conversation. It’s made its way into pop culture, but also into our own culture. Sure, you may not be throwing references to Hermione Granger into your casual chit chat, but I bet that if you heard someone say “Muggle,” you’d have a fair idea of what they meant.