30 famous slang terms and phrases popularized by movies and TV shows
Stacker compiled a list of 30 slang terms that gained popularity after being used in movies and television shows, using the Oxford English Dictionary.
When it comes to popular slang terms, there's no denying that TV and film phrases are baked into our culture. Our habit of incorporating fictional terms into real life can be traced back decades—take the term "gaslighting," for example, which originated in Patrick Hamilton's 1938 play, "Gas Light," and spawned a 1940 film by Thorold Dickinson and a 1944 film by George Cukor. More recently, quotes from older movies and shows have received a boost in popularity after going viral as TikTok sounds. Look no further than the "excuse me, bruh" moment from "Zoolander," or the "don't be suspicious" scene from "Parks and Recreation." But when it comes to pop culture slang, what are some of the most enduring terms?
Stacker compiled a list of 30 slang terms and phrases that gained popularity after roots in movies and television shows using the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources from across the internet. Terms and phrases were chosen based on how culturally relevant they have become, either by entering the common vernacular or via other methods, such as trending sounds on social media. This list is sorted chronologically based on when the pop culture reference point aired or was released.
From Daffy Duck to "Empire" and everything in between, read on to learn how iconic pop culture moments have shaped our slang terms throughout the decades.
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- Pop culture reference point: "Gaslight" (1944)
"Gaslighting" can be traced back to George Cukor's 1944 film "Gaslight," in which a young woman's (Ingrid Bergman) husband (Charles Boyer) orchestrates strange behaviors around their home—such as knocking on the walls and dimming the gas lights—to convince his wife and their acquaintances that she's losing her grip on reality. The film was based on a 1938 play called "Gas Light."
These days, it's recognized as a form of psychological manipulation in which an abuser tries to create self-doubt and confusion in their victim's mind.
- Pop culture reference point: "What Makes Daffy Duck" (1948)
The term "nimrod" is typically used to describe a person who is inept. Although the phrase was first uttered by the cartoon character Daffy Duck in a 1948 cartoon while speaking to Elmer Fudd, it's also associated with Bugs Bunny, who used the word to insult Yosemite Sam in 1951's "Rabbit Every Morning."
- Pop culture reference point: "Howdy Doody" (1949)
The catchphrase "cowabunga" is often associated with the rambunctious teens at the center of the long-running TV show "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," who used it to express their enthusiasm for a whole range of wacky scenarios. But TV writer and composer Edward Kean actually coined "cowabunga" while working on the children's series "Howdy Doody." The character Chief Thunderthud used the phrase as a greeting.
Hardy har har
- Pop culture reference point: "The Honeymooners" (1955)
"Hardy har har" is primarily used as a sarcastic or disparaging response to a remark that was intended to be funny. It was popularized when it became the catchphrase of the character Jackie Gleason plays in the 1950s sitcom "The Honeymooners."
- Pop culture reference point: "La Dolce Vita" (1960)
Paparazzi is literally the plural form of the word "paparazzo." It became well-known after filmmaker Federico Fellini released his classic movie "La Dolce Vita," which follows a nosy photographer named Paparazzo. The term paparazzi gained traction when Time magazine used it to describe pushy, celebrity-hounding photographers as "a ravenous wolf pack."
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- Pop culture reference point: "Mary Poppins" (1964)
Contrary to popular belief, the word "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" existed before it was popularized in song form in the beloved 1964 Disney film "Mary Poppins." In fact, upon the movie's release, songwriters Gloria Parker and Barney Young filed a lawsuit alleging the "Mary Poppins" song violated the copyright of their song "Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus" (published in 1949 or 1951).
According to Merriam-Webster, the earliest variation of the nonsense word first appeared in a Syracuse Daily Orange column by Helen Herman in 1931.
- Pop culture reference point: "Gilligan's Island" (1965)
The term "ribbit" is typically used to imitate the characteristic croaking sound that a frog makes. Many argue the phrase originated in a 1965 episode of "Gilligan's Island," in which actor Mel Blanc voices a character called Ribbit the Frog. Others claim it was first used in the eighth episode of the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1967.
- Pop culture reference point: "Star Trek" (1966)
When the term "mind meld" was first uttered in the ninth episode of "Star Trek: The Original Series," it literally described an alien Vulcan using a touch technique to psychically merge their mind with someone else's mind. In common parlance, "mind meld" can be applied to an intensive brainstorming situation between a group or pair of people who eventually end up on the same wavelength.
- Pop culture reference point: "Hawaii Five-O" (1968)
"Five-O" is a slang term used to describe a police officer and was memorably used in the title of the procedural TV series "Hawaii Five-O" (which followed a police unit of the same name). While "Hawaii Five-O" ran from 1968 until 1980, it wasn't until 1983 that the New York Times officially mentioned the term in an article about teen slang.
- Pop culture reference point: "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (1970)
These days, "spam" typically refers to junk mail that resides in the lower echelons of your email—or even physical—inbox. Yet the term's origin lies in a 1970 "Monty Python's Flying Circus" sketch, in which all of a restaurant's menu items devolved into "spam," a canned and precooked meat produced by Hormel. Soon, everyone in the restaurant's vicinity begins yelling "spam," which is oddly reminiscent of the feeling of being sent spam emails.
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Jumping the shark
- Pop culture reference point: "Happy Days" (1977)
When something has "jumped the shark," it has entered a period of declining quality and popularity. The idiom's origins started with a 1977 episode of the sitcom "Happy Days," in which the character Fonzie (Henry Winkler) jumps over a shark while water-skiing. Many agreed it was a moment that marked the show's turn for the worse.
However, the modern phrase was ultimately coined in 1987 when Jon Hein and his roommates at University of Michigan were discussing the moments when their favorite shows went downhill. Hein eventually started the website jumptheshark.com and still tracks television's downhill moments.
- Pop culture reference point: "Ghostbusters" (1984)
"You're toast" is typically deployed when a person or thing is in serious trouble. The phrase is associated with the hit 1984 blockbuster "Ghostbusters," although the exact quote used in the movie is "All right, this chick is toast!"
- Pop culture reference point: "Simpsons" (1989)
The colloquial term "d'oh" is usually used to express frustration that things haven't turned out as planned. The phrase is typically associated with Homer Simpson, who frequently utters it throughout "The Simpsons." However, it was used pre-"Simpsons," notably in a World War II-era BBC radio show called "It's That Man Again."
Hasta la vista, baby
- Pop culture reference point: "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991)
It's hard to hear the phrase "hasta la vista, baby" and not think of Arnold Schwarzenegger's the Terminator. Before he first said it in the 1991 film "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the phrase was previously used in the songs "Looking for a New Love" by Jody Watley and "Wild Thing" by Tone Loc. "Terminator 2" director James Cameron has said he was inspired by Loc's song.
Life is like a box of chocolates
- Pop culture reference point: "Forrest Gump" (1994)
In the 1994 film "Forrest Gump," the titular character (Tom Hanks) sums up his life philosophy by saying: "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get."
The analogy originated in Winston Groom's 1986 novel of the same and a 1987 novel by Haruki Murakami, who, evidently inspired Groom, included the line in his book "Norwegian Wood": "I always think about that when something painful comes up. 'Now I just have to polish these off, and everything'll be OK.' Life is a box of cookies."
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- Pop culture reference point: "Friends" (1994)
The notorious "friend zone" refers to a friendship in which one person has unrequited romantic feelings for the other. The term has its roots in the "Friends" Season 1 episode "The One with the Blackout," in which Ross (David Schwimmer) pines after his newly single friend Rachel (Jennifer Aniston).
- Pop culture reference point: "Clueless" (1995)
In an iconic moment from the 1995 teen comedy "Clueless," spoiled Beverly Hills high schooler Cher Horowitz rebuffs a potential suitor, exclaiming, "Ugh, as if!" According to writer-director Amy Heckerling, the line was inspired by the LGBTQ+ community.
"I am always compiling slang words because I am just interested in how people use language," Heckerling told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. "At the time… 'As if!' was floating around in the gay community. I thought it was a really multi-useful, multipurpose word."
- Pop culture reference point: "Seinfeld" (1995)
Have you ever passed off an unwanted present to someone else? Turns out, you have "Seinfeld" to thank for giving the practice an official name. The phrase "regifting" showed up in the Season 6 episode "The Label Maker," in which a pair of Super Bowl tickets are repeatedly gifted from one character to another.
Red pill and blue pill
- Pop culture reference point: "The Matrix" (1999)
In Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski's seminal 1999 sci-fi film "The Matrix," protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) is offered a choice by resistance leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): Take the red pill and see the simulation he's been imprisoned in his entire life for what it is, or take the blue pill and forget he ever learned that anything was amiss in his digital world.
While this idea of enlightenment can be traced back to philosopher Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," the "red pill, blue pill" terminology has since been appropriated by conspiracy theorists who oppose things like vaccines and feminism.
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The perfect storm
- Pop culture reference point: "The Perfect Storm" (2000)
"The perfect storm" refers to a particularly bad state of affairs arriving from a number of influential negative factors. The phrase was popularized by the 2000 disaster film of the same name, which was in turn coined by Sebastian Junger (who wrote the book from which the movie was adapted).
Excuse me, bruh
- Pop culture reference point: "Zoolander" (2001)
Thanks to the popular video-sharing platform TikTok, phrases from older movies are reclaiming their place in the current cultural lexicon. Just look at the phrase "excuse me, bruh" from the 2001 comedy "Zoolander," which has become a popular sound on the app.
In the film, this line is uttered when Ben Stiller's character Derek Zoolander bumps into his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson) in a club, leading to a standoff between them in which Derek replies, "You're excused, and I'm not your bruh." To date, the quote has been used in TikToks that have collectively racked up more than 200 million views.
And the best part of this plan is no one can stop me
- Pop culture reference point: "Austin Powers in Goldmember" (2002)
Another popular TikTok sound hails from the 2002 movie "Austin Powers in Goldmember," where the villainous Dr. Evil elaborates on his "Preparation H" plan, saying, "And the best part of this plan is no one can stop me." The quote has become a popular sound on TikTok and other social media platforms and is typically used when users joke about things they know they shouldn't be doing.
- Pop culture reference point: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (2002)
The term "googled" had been used online since the search engine was launched in 1998. However, it wasn't used on television until Willow, who plays Buffy's best friend on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," uttered the phrase in the 2002 episode "Help."
Just hay fever
- Pop culture reference point: "The Story of Tracy Beaker" (2002)
In a memorable scene from the British show "The Story of Tracy Beaker," the title character rebuffs a boy's attempt to ask her why she's crying by insisting, "It's just hay fever." An audio clip of the scene went viral on TikTok in April 2022, with users lip-syncing to the moment and using a crying filter to describe sad moments from their own lives that they tend to downplay.
- Pop culture reference point: "Mean Girls" (2004)
In the beloved 2004 comedy "Mean Girls," high school queen bee Regina George's (Rachel McAdams) sidekick Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) unsuccessfully attempts to make the term "fetch"—used to describe something cool and alluring—popular, prompting Regina to shout: "Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen. It's not going to happen."
The term might not have caught on in the "Mean Girls" universe, but it's become a well-known movie slang term nonetheless.
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- Pop culture reference point: "Saturday Night Live" (2004)
A "Debbie Downer" refers to a consistently negative person who only focuses on the negative elements of a given situation. The term was popularized by a character of the same name on "Saturday Night Live" who first appeared in 2004 and was portrayed by Rachel Dratch. According to Dratch, she came up with the character while vacationing in Costa Rica.
- Pop culture reference point: "The Bucket List" (2007)
A bucket list describes a list of things a person hopes to achieve in their lifetime. It became a mainstream term thanks to the 2007 film "The Bucket List," in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play men with terminal cancer who make a list of things they want to do before they die.
- Pop culture reference point: "Catfish" (2010)
A catfish is a person who poses as someone they're not for fraudulent purposes. Long before the term became popular on the Netflix social media-based reality show "The Circle," it rose to popularity because of the 2010 documentary "Catfish," in which co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman attempt to help the latter's brother track down a catfish who he had a romance with on Facebook. The film later spawned a TV show following similar stories.
Don't be suspicious
- Pop culture reference point: "Parks and Recreation" (2015)
From "Galentine's Day" to "treat yo self," the sitcom "Parks and Recreation" has inspired countless memes. However, one of the most iconic comes from a scene of trouble-making sibling duo Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) and Mona-Lisa (Jenny Slate), who dance through a cemetery after faking the former's death by singing, "Don't be suspicious!" The clip became popular on TikTok in 2021, with the hashtag #dontbesuspicious racking up over a billion views.
I gotta put me first
- Pop culture reference point: "Empire" (2019)
In a memorable scene from the TV drama "Empire," protagonist Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) affirms her self-performance, shouting multiple times, "I gotta put me first!" The dramatic scene has become a popular meme on TikTok as users lip-sync to an audio clip of the moment to joke about moments in which they were hyperbolically selfish or self-centered in various situations.
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