Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords.
– Robert Louis Stevenson
In the end, Mr. Trump’s simple promise to ‘Make America Great Again,’ a catchphrase Mrs. Clinton dismissed as a vow to return to a racist past already long disappeared, would draw enough white Americans to the polls to make up for his low minority support.
– Amy Chozick, New York Times, November 9, 2016
A poll of 2000 representative adult citizens has just revealed, according to surrounding publicity, the British public’s fifty favourite catchphrases. I was asked to comment on the survey and its findings and have expanded on those first thoughts here…
- Linguists describe the catchphrase as a ‘pre-formed lexical unit’, a component of the lexical repertoire shared by individual speakers and wider social groups. A catchphrase is ‘disseminated’ – spread – by repeated media usage and by word of mouth repetition.
- A catchphrase is typically a sequence of several words which works in memory and in conversation as a single unit. It triggers recognition because it is used repeatedly across society and this recognition in turn triggers the pleasure of sharing a cultural allusion with other people.
- Catchphrases, like proverbs, slogans or clichés (not to mention adages, maxims, platitudes, sayings and mottos), work because they encode ideas that are wise or funny or inspiring – sometimes all three at once. They also work well in interactions because they are information shortcuts or emotional prompts that can be slipped into conversations instead of having to explain interesting or complex ideas at length. In the digital and visual sphere hashtags and memes share many of the catchphrase’s attributes.
- A catchphrase such as ‘I don’t believe it!’ expresses a mix of exasperation, world-weary resignation and fatalistic humour that will be familiar from many people’s personal experience. ‘Don’t panic!’ is a piece of urgent advice that fits almost all of the traumas that life inflicts upon us. (The same words were memorably used in the cult TV series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’)
- The psychology of using a catchphrase is similar to that of telling a joke or repeating a famous quote: it not only conveys an opinion or information but forms a social bond of intimacy between the user and whoever they are talking to.
- Many catchphrases are associated with a particular performer, celebrity or public figure and so have a double impact in evoking that person’s trademark persona and attributes as well as the ideas they originally expressed. Catchphrases from much-loved shows lodge in the listener’s mind and stay with them as pleasurable memories to replay over and over again.
- Some catchphrases – ‘it is what it is’, for example, mimic a philosopher or sage expressing universal truths in simple language. The repetition used drives home the idea and its finality is effective in closing down a discussion – but at the same time this kind of catchphrase (like its abrupt synonym ‘end of’) can irritate the hearer if it is thought to be meaningless or stating the obvious or falsely affecting profundity. ‘Simples’, on the other hand is inoffensive and works especially well because it is itself as simple as it can be, as well as teasingly funny and associated with a lovable, if fictionalised and Russian-accented creature.
- Catchphrases derive their power from compressing quite complex ideas into short sequences and reinforce their power by employing unexpected juxtapositions and by using striking or clever combinations of sound (‘phonaesthetics’ or ‘sound symbolism’) that work just as in poetry or literature to arouse feelings in the listener. A very short expression such as ‘beermunch’ (the product name associated with the poll promotion in question) brings two already very familiar words together for the first time and combines two short, sharp contrasting sounds, sounds that for many will evoke the act of imbibing a stimulating liquid and the act of ‘chomping’ on delicious snack food.
- Catchphrases are a key component of popular culture as they connect the world of entertainment and consumption with the everyday concerns of real people – their feelings and experiences, their shared pleasures and their struggles and frustrations, and especially their triumphs over adversity.
- Some catchphrases (like buzzwords, linguists call these ‘vogue terms) quickly fall out of use or soon begin to sound dated and embarrassing. What is notable in the latest list, however, is how many of the expressions chosen are decades old and still in favour. It seems that certain phrases reverberate across generations, becoming part of the shared vocabulary of family members and neighbours (more technically ‘familect’).
So here are…
THE NATION’S TOP 50 CATCHPHRASES – as of September 2019
- I don’t believe it! – Victor Meldrew
- Simples – Compare the Market
- Don’t panic! – Lance-Corporal Jones/Dad’s Army
- Lovely jubbly – Del Boy/Only Fools and Horses
- I had a cunning plan! – Tony Robinson / Blackadder
- To me, to you – Chuckle Brothers
- I’ll be back – Arnold Schwarzenegger / Terminator 2
- Nice to see you – to see you nice – Bruce Forsyth
- Only me! – Harry Enfield
- Rodney, you plonker! Del Boy/Only Fools and Horses
- Cheeky Nando’s
- How YOU doin’? Joey from FRIENDS
- Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once – ‘Allo ‘Allo
- Computer says no – Little Britain
- Garlic bread! – Peter Kay
- Should’ve gone to Specsavers – Specsavers
- D’oh! – Homer Simpson
- Am I bovvered? Catherine Tate
- The name’s Bond… James Bond – James Bond
- Beam me up, Scotty – Star Trek
- It is what it is – Love Island
- Aha! – I’m Alan Partridge
- What’s occurring? – Gavin and Stacey
- I’ve started so I’ll finish – Mastermind presenter
- It’s goodnight from me, and it’s goodnight from him – The Two Ronnies
- I’m free! – Mr Humphries/Are You Being Served
- Ooh Betty – Frank Spencer
- You dirty old man! – Steptoe and Son
- Lads lads lads – and everybody! – Ladbrokes
- Exterminate! – Dalek
- Live Long and Prosper – Star Trek
- We’re going out-out – Mickey Flanagan
- I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse – The Godfather
- Have a break, have a Kit Kat – Kit Kat
- Scorchio! – The Fast Show
- Because I’m worth it – L’Oreal
- Bazinga! – The Big Bang Theory
- It’s good, but it’s not right – Roy Walker/Catchphrase
- Who loves ya, baby! – Kojak
- I ain’t getting’ on no plane! – Mr T/The A Team
- I’m Lovin’ It – McDonald’s
- Shut that door – Larry Grayson
- Smokin’! – Jim Carrey – The Mask
- On that bombshell… – Jeremy Clarkson / Top Gear
- You are the weakest link – goodbye! – Anne Robinson / The Weakest Link
- You’ll like this – not a lot – Paul Daniels
- …Which was nice – The Fast Show
- No likey, no lighty! – Take Me Out
- Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis? – Diff’rent Strokes
- Giggity – Quagmire / Family Guy
And here is how the poll results were relayed to a waiting public…