- TV shows like “Friends,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” and “Seinfeld” have made a lasting cultural impact.
- They even added words to the dictionary.
- Words like “spam,” “regifting,” and “going commando” have become part of common parlance.
Television plays an important role in society – it educates, connects with us emotionally, offers cultural commentary, and makes us laugh.
But TV plays an important linguistic role as well. Language experts play close attention to the ways TV shows influence the way we talk, and some of the most interesting linguistic developments are associated with TV.
Take the word “spam,” for instance. Once just a canned lunch meat, spam now refers to junk email – all because of a 1970 Monty Python sketch.
There are plenty of other examples too, from shows like “Friends,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” and “Seinfeld.”
Read on to learn about some of the most enduring words that got their starts on popular TV shows.
It’s hard to believe that one of the most basic joke constructions got its start on “SNL,” but that’s exactly the case here.
The joke debuted in a well-known 1990 “Wayne’s World” sketch featuring the cast members Mike Myers and Dana Carvey and the host Tom Hanks. At one point, Myers turned to Hanks and said, “Anyways, Barry, that was really interesting,” before looking into the camera and adding, “Not!”
The joke turned into one of the sketch’s many catchphrases and had such staying power that “Not!” was named the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year in 1992.
In the years before that sketch, the word floated around in the vernacular of UCLA college students according to the Orlando Sentinel. And before that, Steve Martin ad-libbed a similar line in a 1978 “SNL” sketch.
But we can thank “Wayne’s World” for bringing the “Not!” joke into the mainstream – and for inspiring one of the more memorable scenes in “Borat.”
- Monty Python/BBC
Canned Spam has been around since the 1930s, but we can thank a 1970 Monty Python sketch for its alternate internet-related definition.
The sketch is set in a cafe where nearly every menu item contains Spam. The references to the canned lunchmeat increase until all the dialogue is drowned out by a chorus of Vikings singing “Spam!” repeatedly.
As chatting on the internet became possible in the ’80s and ’90s, some early netizens flooded online message boards with lyrics to the song, drowning out other conversations, much like the Vikings in the sketch.
The practice of giving someone a gift you had previously received has been around as long as gifts have been given.
But calling it “regifting” became popular thanks to a 1995 episode of “Seinfeld” in which a regifted label-maker becomes a topic of concern among the show’s characters.
Merriam-Webster also indicates the episode was the first use of the term, saying it emerged in 1995.
We can thank Joey from “Friends” for teaching us what it means to “go commando.”
For what it’s worth, according to the article, many commandos do go commando, but it’s by no means a universal practice.
Everyone knows a Debbie Downer: someone who ruins others’ good moods with an ill-timed depressing comment.
The phrase traces its origins to a 2004 “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which Rachel Dratch, playing the titular character, mars her group’s Disney World breakfast with upsetting facts about mad cow disease, heatstroke, and train explosions.
Nearly every actor in the sketch couldn’t make it through without cracking up, and it became an instant “SNL” classic.
Most people assume “SNL” took the phrase from somewhere else, but Dratch set the record straight in an interview with Salon in 2015.
“The term ‘Debbie Downer’ just took off in a way I never expected,” she said. “People think the sketch came after the phrase, but the sketch came first.”
“Meh” is a handy interjection that, according to Merriam-Webster, is “used to express indifference or mild disappointment.”
The linguistic origins of “meh” are unclear – some contend it’s borrowed from Yiddish, though that hasn’t been proved.
But there’s no question it became popular because of “The Simpsons” – specifically, because of a scene from the 1992 episode “Sideshow Bob Roberts.” The word made its way into several subsequent “Simpsons” episodes.
Since then, “meh” has diversified its linguistic profile to include its use as an adjective, such as in the sentence “That dinner was pretty meh.”
Speaking of “The Simpsons,” the word “cowabunga” was one of the most enduring catchphrases from the show’s early days.
But it traces its origins to a much earlier TV show.
The interjection – “used to express delight or satisfaction,” according to Oxford Dictionaries – was coined on the popular 1950s show “Howdy Doody.” Eddie Kean, a writer for the Western-themed children’s show, made up the word for a Native American character, Chief Thunderthud, to say when he was mad or frustrated.
The word eventually entered surfing culture in the 1960s “as an exclamation of awesomeness related to catching waves,” according to BuzzFeed. The interjection was used as a catchphrase on the shows “Gidget” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” before it was on “The Simpsons.”
The show “Hawaii Five-O” centered on a special state police task force called Five-O and began filming in 1968, nine years after Hawaii became a US state.
A popular assumption is that “Five-O” is some sort of police code, but in reality, the show’s writers were simply paying homage to Hawaii’s status as the 50th state.
Since the show, the word “Five-O” has entered our language as a slang term for law enforcement.