Words & Stuff

yyy: Build a Better Catchphrase

(5 December 1999)

A catchphrase is brief, catchy phrase, used widely and repeated often. There are many different kinds of catchphrases, including these overlapping categories:

And of course there are plenty of catchphrases that combine or cross categories. "Tubular" and "totally" and "like" and "omigod" were popular phrases both as references to "Valley Girls" and as pop-culture idioms among those who wanted to be like Vals or surfers. Some such phrases were later revived in other contexts: "What-everrrr," with full Valley Girl intonation (and a new hand symbol, forming a W) was re-popularized by the movie Clueless. (Which may also have been the source of the phrase "going postal.") Note that for many catchphrases, mimicking the original intonation is important; "whatever" can be said without Val intonation, but it loses a lot of its impact (and humor), perhaps because it becomes more like an idiom and less like a reference.

Catchphrases these days come most often from TV shows, because that's where the vast majority of Americans get their shared culture. Television has popularized many catchphrases over the decades, most of which have eventually gone out of style. For instance, Laugh-In popularized catchphrases such as "Sock it to me," "You bet your bippy," and "Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall's." I suppose I still hear "sock it to me" every so often, but it sounds dated, and I've never even heard the other two.

Saturday Night Live has been a major source of American catchphrases since its inception. Recurring SNL characters often have signature lines used both to quickly identify them and to set up anticipation in the audience: you know the line is going to be used during the sketch, but not necessarily when. And such lines sometimes become funny through sheer repetition; you laugh because you recognize them. (In the book From Fringe to Flying Circus, I'm told, the Monty Python people tell the story of performing a stage show in which they used the word "teapot" repeatedly. The first time it was only mildly funny, but each repetition of the word provoked ever-greater gales of laughter from the audience. Eventually, the group decided not to perform that piece any more, because it seemed like too cheap a laugh.)

Catchphrases are often used, by members of the general public, as a sign of group identity: they identify the speaker as one of the cognoscenti, a participant in the shared culture. Catchphrases can also be comfortingly familiar. The most successful catchphrases, I suspect, tend to be those that can be used in common everyday situations.

And in fact the catchphrases that I'm most interested in are the ones that have transcended their origins: phrases that require no context, that can be used even by people who've never encountered the original source, that are useful in daily life. Perhaps the best current example is from The Simpsons: the grunting noise that's usually spelled "D'oh!" The verbal equivalent of hitting yourself on the forehead. Before The Simpsons, people made a variety of sounds when they'd made stupid mistakes. These days, nine Americans out of ten will say "D'oh!" (For a year or two, every time anyone said "D'oh!", everyone within earshot would all say it to each other two or three times. I, not being a Simpsons fan, was not amused.)

Other examples of such universalized catchphrases include "yadda yadda yadda" (long in use among Yiddish speakers, and used by Lenny Bruce, but popularized by Seinfeld); "I hate when that happens" (from SNL); "Isn't that special" (from SNL); and the thankfully going out of vogue "...Not!" (also from SNL, specifically "Wayne's World," which provided what seem like dozens of other catchphrases).

I haven't seen any attempts to list catchphrases (though a good dictionary of idioms would be a big step in that direction), but apparently slangmeister Eric Partridge created a book called Dictionary of Catch Phrases (British and American), from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day, loosely based on his A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Unfortunately, this book apparently conforms to Partridge's usual predilection for 19th century British slang, making it not terribly useful in looking up modern catchphrases.

I'll close with some other more or less universalized catchphrases currently or recently in circulation:

"Sweet" (apparently a South Parkism in certain contexts)

"Yeah, that's the ticket." (from SNL)

"And monkeys might fly out my butt!" (from SNL)

"Most excellent!" (popularized by Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure)

"For my next trick..." (said after fumbling something or making a clumsy mistake)

"What's up with that?" (possibly from Cheers; seems to have become popular around 1992)

Thanks to Kam, Arthur, Gerry, Mya, Deb, Ethan, and Thida for their aid in producing this column. Thanks to The Oxford Companion to the English Language (my latest reference-work acquisition; edited by Tom McArthur, a lovely huge fascinating 1992 volume from Oxford University Press) for suggesting political and advertising slogans as catchphrases.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>