'Challenge accepted', 'How you doin', 'Bazinga': Pop culture is shaping language globally
“And you know who you are, Republicans. In fact, I think we’ve got Republican senators Tim Scott and Cory Gardner. They are in the house, which reminds me….security bar the doors. It’s like the red wedding.”
President Barack Obama’s reference to the “Red Wedding”, a wedding massacre from The Rains of Castamere, one of Game of Thrones’ (GoT) most gut-wrenching episodes, at the recent White House Correspondent’s Dinner (WHCD), was telling for a couple of things: (1) That he’s a cool relatable President who totally deserved to get the advance copies of GoT, (2) GoT is a microcosm of real America, and (3) GoT’s cultural perforation is complete and immense. Oh, and that the WHCD truly is a “nerd prom”.
The cultural impact of GoT has been felt for a while now. Audience reactions to the afore-mentioned Red Wedding, the mass hysteria and debate that followed fan-favourite Jon Snow’s apparent death, as well as the collective tears shed and sighs heaved in relief at his subsequent return were enough proof (as if we needed any) that it’s George RR Martin’s world, and we’re just living in it. More interestingly, it’s the language that Martin’s universe has exposed us to, that is game-changing. Obama’s “Red Wedding” reference drew chuckles from the crowd, just like “Hodor!” has become a one-word response to just about everything. Entire Pinterest boards have been dedicated to the popular romantic exchange “Moon of my life, My sun and stars” between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo, and it is normal nowadays to look at someone who pretends to be too all-knowing and wise, and say to them, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” I mean, who even uses the term “naive” anymore!
GoT is just at the cusp of a long list of TV shows and movies that have shaped the way we speak. Movies have always been treasure troves of iconic quotes, from the ironically benevolent “I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse” (The Godfather, 1972), the clearly sarcastic “You're gonna need a bigger boat” (Jaws, 1975), and the legendary “May the Force be with you” (Star Wars, 1977), to the pop-culture phenom that is “I'll have what she's having” (When Harry Met Sally, 1989), from the immensely quotable “You can't handle the truth!” (A Few Good Men, 1992), the quintessentially ‘90s bubblegum-hip hop slang “As if!” (Clueless, 1995), the charmingly malignant “My precious(sssss)” (The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, 2002) to the archaic-yet-poetic “May the odds be ever in your favour” (The Hunger Games, 2012). It’s not just about being quote-worthy, these famous lines have origins that speak to the cultural observations that scriptwriters and creators made when they wrote them (“As if!”, for instance, was something that was doing the rounds of the early 90s gay community). Of course, we’re living in a time when ironically quoting from ‘80s and ‘90s movies and TV shows only increases your cool factor, so it’s not rare to see youngsters quoting straight out of classics such as Heathers or Seinfeld.
Television has an equally enduring and even more pervasive impact on cultural mores and language. From the beginning of time, there have always been situations in which one of two friends wishes to enter into a romantic or sexual relationship, while the other does not, but “friend zone” entered popular usage with FRIENDS (it referred to Ross’ decade-long pining for Rachel, and her obliviousness to his intentions). When the Oxford English dictionary acknowledges a word/phrase, you know it’s real! Homer Simpson’s iconic D’oh has also been inducted into official English-language dictionaries. Over the years, television has produced some timeless gems, from Seinfeld’s “spongeworthy” (incidentally, this famous catchphrase has also been applied to Economics!) to “how you doin?” (really, our cultural debt to FRIENDS is insurmountable), from How I Met Your Mother’s “challenge accepted” (a phrase that has inspired countless memes, an escape game, and a TV show) to “Bazinga!” (the origins of this gotcha-moment phrase were really quite simple).
With Netflix, Amazon Fire TV and other streaming sources, it’s interesting how less diverse urban speech has become (social psychologists and linguists surely have something to say about this mostly American “global vernacular” that most of us are privy to). While earlier, a popular American TV show would be on syndication in other countries a few years (or even a decade) later, in 2016, we’re all watching and accumulating the same visual, audio, cultural, and linguistic stimuli simultaneously. Social media has further changed our language, while increasing its global appeal. If the latest list of words added to the Oxford English Dictionary are any indication, “YOLO”, “throw shade”, and “binge watch” are here to stay! And there’s no way to hide from this language onslaught, as these federal prosecutors found out, to their embarrassment. It’s easier to just acquaint yourself with social media slang or an even broader social media glossary.
Television shows like Younger and Gossip Girl have bridged the gap between television and social media brilliantly (even while the debates continue over whether viewers want that much social media on television). There’s something comforting about having classic movie and television lines to quote, just as there’s something truly amazing in being part of a generation that’s organically creating a new cultural lexicon. So the next time your BFF throws shade at you for not being attwicted because you don’t know what the Beyhive is, just shake your head, look them deep into their eyes and say, “You know nothing, Jon Snow!”