In trying to cull our books, I came across a small paperback entitled, “The Phrase That Launched 1,000 Ships,” by Nigel Rees, a 1991 publication from Dell Publishing’s Intrepid Linguist Library. Other titles in this collection include “Anguished English,” “Demonic Mnemonics,” “Get Thee to a Punnery,” “Remembrance of Things Fast,” and other titles that suggest fun with words.
The book’s subtitle, “The Ultimate Guide to Contemporary Catch Phrases, Clichés, Popular Sayings, Slogans, and More,” details the contents, which, 30 years later, could seem past their use-by date.
In the Introduction, Rees acknowledges that “we have forgotten what the phrases once alluded to,” though at the time they made language “more pithy and colorful.” His goal is to examine these categories: catch phrases (those that caught on but that might not be traceable to an original source), clichés (worn out phrases), colloquialisms (phrases that don’t fit into other categories), format phrase (a basic sentence structure that can be altered to suit one’s purpose, as in “One small step for _____, one giant step for __________”), idioms, nicknames, slogans, and stock phrases. Rees has arranged the paperback alphabetically according to the arena in which the phrases originated — politics, entertainment (movies and TV), journalism, etc.
ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO PRINT
This slogan originated with Adolph S. Ochs when he bought The New York Times in 1896, appearing on the editorial page first then on the front page near the masthead (where the date, issue, etc. occur). In the 1890s the Times had competitors in the World, the Herald, and the Journal, so the slogan became a “war cry,” Rees says.
Rees speculates that the phrase could sound like a “slogan for the suppression of news,” and someone perverted the phrase to “all the news that fits, we print.” Feeding frenzy, excessive media attention, became popular in the late 1980s after Dr. Perry W. Gilbert wrote an article in Scientific American that described sharks moving in on a wounded marlin: “Frequently three or four sharks will attack the marlin simultaneously. A wild scene sometimes called a ‘feeding frenzy’ now ensues.” One only needs to recall paparazzi in pursuit of a famous person to identify with “feeding frenzy.”
Journalists and technical writers know the admonition, “If in doubt, strike it out,” meaning that if writers are unsure of a fact or of the wisdom of including information, they should omit it. Rees says that this advice has origins as early as Mark Twain in “Pudd’nhead Wilson” when he wrote: “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” Ernest Hemingway advised against the use of adverbs.
CATCH PHRASES AND SLOGANS
When a phrase “catches on,” it moves from the original speaker of it to application in a variety of circumstances. The phrase “Where’s the beef?” first occurred in a Wendy’s commercial in 1984; it was supposed to be read as “Where is all the beef?” but the actor misread it. You may recall the commercial as depicting three elderly ladies who were served a large hamburger bun with a small hamburger inside and a pickle. The phrase became the title of a hit song from Nashville songwriter and DJ Coyote McCloud, and it was used as a promotion for Wendy’s advertising campaign.
The phrase was popularized through bumper stickers, frisbees, clothing patches, a Milton Bradley game, and in everyday speech. In 2011, Wendy’s revived the phrase as “Here’s the beef” and used it again during the pandemic when stores were seeing a beef shortage.
If, like me, you missed the original commercial, you may have spent weeks wondering what all the fuss was about. Not so oddly, Rees ends his book with a quotation from author Kurt Vonnegut: “What passes for culture in my head is really a bunch of commercials.”
An English pamphleteer, John Arbuthnot, entitled a composition in 1726, “It Never Rains but It Pours,” an idiom that the Morton Salt Company has used as its slogan since 1911. We are all familiar with the little girl with her umbrella in the rain, holding the box with salt pouring out despite the humidity, thanks to the company’s addition of an anti-caking compound.
SOME LIKE IT HOT
Rees refers to the film “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and to an earlier film with the same title in 1939 with comedian Bob Hope to explain this phrase. Both films used this phrase from the nursery rhyme, “Pease Porridge Hot,” which dates from 1750. The second verse has these words: “Some like it hot / Some like it cold / Some like it in the pot / Nine days old.” The phrase may be used today to mean a dangerous situation people find themselves in, or it may mean “hot” jazz as it does in the movie. In a BBC poll, the comedy “Some Like It Hot” topped the list of “best ever big-screen comedies.” Nicolas Barber, writing at www.bbc.com, said, [The film] is an anthem in praise of tolerance, acceptance, and the possibility of transformation. It’s an anthem that we need to hear now more than ever.”
PHRASES FROM NOVELS
Most of us have found ourselves in a “catch-22” moment in our lives. It originated with Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22” published in 1955. The phrase means “some underlying law that defeats people by its brutal, ubiquitous logic”; in other words, there’s always a catch. In the novel, the main character, Captain Yossarian, a U.S. Air Force bombardier, does not want to fly any more missions. He appeals to his commanding officer to ground him because Yossarian is insane. The officer says, “I have to ground anyone who’s crazy,” to which Yossarian replies, “Then why can’t you ground me?” The officer explains, “Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.” The 22 refers to the chapter of the novel in which the scenario occurs.
Nigel Rees has given us a few hours of insight into the origins of phrases that have survived their original use, his book being a reminder of the “infinite variety” of English.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.