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Think movies don’t help shape language? Forgeddaboutit!

March 2009

The movie Slum Dog Millionaire, which won the Best Picture award at the Oscars, demonstrates the power of movies on society, showing how a boy from the slums of Mumbai can seemingly defy Indian fate through his own efforts.

Similarly, it can be argued, the movies Deep Impact (1998) and Head Of State (2003), featuring Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock as U.S.presidents, paved the way for the election of Barack Obama.

While the power of films to shape society is oft noted, 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 is the expression, “Are you a man or a mouse?” asked of Jimmy Stewart by Carole Lombard in the movie Made for Each Other.

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’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” (The Godfather – 1972); “Go ahead, make my day” (Sudden Impact – 1983), and “You’re a funny guy. …I like you. That’s why I’m going to kill you last.” (Commando – 1985.)

Also, movie dialogue 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 as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” 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?” which is usually stated in a whimsical way. However, in the movie, De Niro plays 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 fondest desires. The line “There’s no place like home” was popularized in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Thanks to the 1977 film Star Wars in which Ben “Obi-wan” Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker, “May the force be with you,” we now have a secular blessing in our lexicon.

Another mob movie, 1997’s Donnie 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 “forgeddaboutit” and provides the following analysis: “ ‘Forgeddaboutit.’ It’s like if you agree with someone, like ‘Raquel Welch is one great piece of ass’ – Forgeddaboutit! But then if you disagree like ‘A Lincoln is better than a Cadillac’? – Forgeddaboutit! But then if something is the greatest thing in the world, like those peppers – Forgeddaboutit! But it also means ‘Go to hell,’ like if I say to Paulie, ‘You have a one-inch pecker,’ and Paulie says, ‘Forgeddaboutit!’ Sometimes it just means ‘Forget about it.’”

And you thought the TV’s The Sopranos popularized the term “forgeddaboutit?”


Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?



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