10 Common Phrases That Came From Pop Culture

If you’ve ever checked something off your bucket list or called someone a “Debbie Downer,” you were quoting popular media without realizing it. Read on for more phrases that originated with movies, music, and TV.
Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), once referred to as a "sweet summer child."
Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), once referred to as a "sweet summer child." / HBO ('Game of Thrones' still); Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)
facebooktwitterreddit

Popular culture has a big impact on our everyday lives, from how we dress to the names we give our kids. It even influences the way we talk—whether we realize it or not. Many words and phrases that feel timeless originated with or became popular from media that’s only a few decades old. In some cases, these terms have left a greater cultural impact than the shows, songs, and movies they came from. From mullet to bucket list, these terms from popular culture are newer than you may have assumed.

Bucket List

Bucket list is a widely used term today. It even has its own entry in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, which defines it as “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.” The phrase is so common that it’s easy to forget it wasn’t used much before 2007. That year, The Bucket List hit theaters and popularized the concept of making a list of things to do before you die. The title would leave a greater cultural impact than the movie itself. It came from screenwriter Justin Zackham’s own “bucket list,” which he condensed from the original name: “List of Things to do Before I Kick the Bucket.” Fittingly, making a movie through a major Hollywood studio was one of his bucket list items.

Debbie Downer

Today, Debbie Downer is synonymous with killjoy, wet blanket, or party pooper. It also has clear origins in pop culture. Rachel Dratch introduced the world to the concept of a Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live in 2003. Her character was famous for highlighting the negative side of any situation, often while grimacing at the camera. If you know someone who can’t hear you talk about your cat without bringing up feline AIDS, they might be a Debbie Downer. 

Catfish

The documentary Catfish and the spin-off series on MTV coined the word for pretending to be someone you’re not to deceive people online. Even if you remember that the slang term has pop culture origins, you may have forgotten the specific metaphor that inspired it. In the original film, the husband of the married catfisher tells a story about commercial fishermen adding aggressive catfish to tanks of cod to keep the cod fresh and active on long voyages. He connects the story to the theme of the documentary, saying, “And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes [...] And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring, and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”

He’s Just Not That Into You

Before He’s Just Not That Into You was a movie it was a book, and before it was a book it was a plot in an episode of Sex and the City. In the season 6 episode “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little,” Carrie’s new boyfriend Jack Berger tells Miranda that if a man doesn’t call her back, “he’s just not into that you.” The concept shook the early 2000s dating scene so hard that Sex and the City writers Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo published a book about it in 2004; it was adapted into a rom-com of the same name in 2009.

Oh, My Sweet Summer Child

This vaguely condescending phrase quickly became part of the lexicon after it was used on HBO’s Game of Thrones. In the season 1 episode “Lord Snow,” Old Nan calls Bran a “sweet summer child” when he tells her he likes scary stories. Here’s the full quote

“Oh, my sweet summer child. What do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep. Fear is for the Long Night, when the sun hides for years and children are born and live and die all in darkness.”

In the world of the show and the book series it’s based on, seasons last for years, which means young people have only known summer their whole lives. This context is often lost when people use the phrase today.

Mullet

Though mullets were big in the 1970s and ‘80s, the famous “business in the front, party in the back” haircut didn’t get a proper name until 1994. That’s when the Beastie Boys released their track “Mullet Head” mocking the style. The phrase did exist prior to that, but it was applied more generally to anyone lacking common sense and had nothing to do with hair. 

Regift

Seinfeld had a knack for coining snappy names for social faux-pas. Though regift was used before the 1995 episode “The Re-gifter,” its meanings were closer to giving an additional or unwanted gift to someone. The sitcom reinvented the term to describe recycling a gift you received and didn’t like into a present for someone else.

Meh

Meh has become such a common expression of disinterest that most people don’t think twice about its etymology. Though the word itself has Yiddish origins, its modern usage can be traced back to The Simpsons. Writer John Swartzwelder takes credit for adding the term to the season 6 episode “Sideshow Bob Roberts” in 1997. It’s since become as widely used as d’oh—another term the comedy series popularized.

Friend With Benefits

No, this phrase didn’t originate with the 2011 rom-com of the same name (or the movie No Strings Attached that premiered the same year). It was likely coined by Alanis Morissette in her 1995 song “Head Over Feet.” When she sings “You’re my best friend. Best friend with benefits,” she isn’t describing a casual, no-strings-attached relationship. That meaning was applied to the phrase later as it became common parlance.

Sophie’s Choice

In the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep’s character must choose between saving the life of one of her children and leaving the other to die, or allowing both to perish in a Nazi concentration camp. The title has become a catch-all term for any difficult choice between two mutually exclusive options—though “difficult” is relative. Someone might frame choosing between two lunch spots as a “Sophie’s choice,” which goes to show how far it’s drifted from the original context. 

Read More Stories About Language Here:

manual