6 Idioms That Came From Film And Theater

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Chances are, you’ve probably used an idiom from film or theater in an everyday context. There's blockbuster, close-up, and double take, to name a few. Others, such as cleavage or gaslighting are less well-known. In his new book, Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes from Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, journalist Josh Chetwynd presents a robust list of these terms. Here are the film-related origins of just six of the hundreds of terms included in the book.


As far back as the 19th century, geologists would refer to a separation between rocks or crystals as cleavage. This makes sense, since cleaving means “to separate." In the 1940s however, American movie censors adopted the term in order to replace one euphemism (décolletage) with another. In 1945, a British film called The Wicked Lady could not secure distribution due to the actresses' dresses being deemed too revealing for U.S. audiences. The public was informed of this new terminology in a 1946 TIME Magazine article titled “Cleavage and the Code." The article informed readers that “cleavage” is a “Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress’ bosom into two distinct sections." Within a few years, the explanation for the euphemism became unnecessary for American readers.


When a consumer product attains great commercial success, it’s not uncommon to say it is “selling like gangbusters." The term originates with a 1936 radio series that debuted on CBS called Gang Busters. The name refers to the actual gang busters in the show: FBI agents that would break up organized crime syndicates. The radio show was on the air for over 20 years and eventually led to TV series, movie serials, and even comic books with the same name. The franchise’s notoriety would lead to the gangbusters idiom being coined to describe this phenomenon of mass appeal.


Oxford Dictionaries defines a gaslighter as someone who “Manipulate[s] (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity." While this particular form of psychological abuse probably goes back a long way, it owes its name to a 1938 play called Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the U.S.). The play was later twice made into a movie, both called Gaslight, one produced in the UK in 1940 and another much more well known Hollywood version in 1944. The American version starred Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her big-screen debut. The title derives from a scene that includes an incident where protagonist Paula (played by Bergman) sees the gaslights in her home dim and flicker for no apparent reason. Her husband Gregory Anton (played by Boyer) insists this is all in Paula’s head.


Merriam-Webster defines being in sync as “a state in which two or more people or things agree with or match one another and work together properly.” One of the early technological challenges that filmmakers had to solve was how to make a movie’s audio match the moving images on the screen. In sync was an abbreviation for the effort to make the sound and motion pictures work “in synchrony," and later “in synchronization." This was not an easy feat. Celluloid film burned easily, and individual frames would often be removed from the reel. To the naked eye, this was not perceptible, but it would lead to the sound being ... out of sync. The solution came in 1924, when the sound strip was first placed directly on the film reel; this is what we now call the soundtrack.


In the 1870s, a one-night stand was what people called a theatrical production that performed for a single night and then moved on. There were one-night stand companies and one-night stand theaters all across the country. By the 1930s, however, one-night stand had become a euphemism for an ephemeral tryst. It’s not entirely clear what happened in those 60 years to cause the transformation, but there are some theories. In Mark Twain’s 1889 work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, King Arthur decides to go out in disguise to see how his subjects live. This plan is referred to as “only a one-night stand.” Language expert Martin Harrison believes the origin may go back even further—at least in part. In his book, The Language of Theater, Harrison writes that the word stand has been “a colloquial term for the male erection” since the 16th century.


Today, we use the term quickie to describe a brief bout of sexual activity. However, it was first popularized in the 1920s as a term for a movie produced over the course of a mere two weeks. Film industry gossip columnist Louella Parsons popularized the term in a 1927 column. “Hollywood is in the throes of the ‘quickies,'" Parsons wrote. Even some of the biggest names would sign on to do quickies. “This illegitimate offspring of the more dignified feature production manages to get some of our best players,” she added. According to Chetwynd, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd invested in quickies, which were quite lucrative. A quickie could cost just $40,000 to make and generate $200,000 ($545,000 and $2,700,000 respectively today, adjusted for inflation).