That’s what she said: the impact of pop culture on language

9 min read
Artwork by Mantraste

I have a friend who excels at that’s what she said jokes. She has the ability to turn even the most innocent sentence into a sexually charged one-liner. No thanks; I’m good. You should put butter on it. You’re making this harder than it needs to be. That’s what she said! From the more straightforward to the less obvious, her humor is as varied as Mariah Carey’s 5-octave vocal range.

If you’re familiar with the TV show The Office, this type of joke is old news. Much like my friend (let’s call her Jane, for convenience’s sake), Michael Scott, Regional Branch Manager of Dunder Mifflin Scranton, PA, is a big fan of the “that’s what she said” gag. It could however be that, in a striking resemblance to Jane, you have never watched a single episode of The Office in your life (your loss, we’re talking about 74 hours of pure joy. That’s what she said).

So where did Jane get this reference from? Did she get it from me, who so shamelessly try to make jokes in an attempt to be funny and, consequently, loved? Does Jane have cooler friends than me? Has she been watching The Office behind my back? In a world where we are influenced by media content, celebrities, and Mercury (only when in retrograde), I can’t help wondering: how do pop culture phrases make their way into the language we use on a daily basis?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away

We humans have been around for a while: 2.4 million years if we consider the first species in our genus, Homo, or 150,000 years if we’re talking about the Homo Sapiens, i.e., anatomically modern human beings. We evolved, stood up straight on our hind legs, traveled and settled across various regions of the world, transitioning from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles. Somewhere along the way, we accidentally discovered fire, invented the wheel, and discovered the undeniable benefits of the kale smoothie, in that order of importance.

For almost as long as we have lived in groups or societies, we have had common practices bringing us together. Take cave painting in the prehistoric era, for instance. But it’s difficult to know for sure whether these early traditions can truly be considered manifestations of culture.

My list of questions I don’t have an exact answer to begins its journey, “Were Ross and Rachel really on a break?”, cascading into “Whatever, does it really justify Ross’s behavior?”, before reaching its logical terminus at, “What is culture?” While I don’t think we will ever come to a consensus regarding the “Were they/weren’t they” debate, I do believe we might be nearing a solid description of culture. Raymond Williams helps us out with three possible definitions. Culture, the way he sees it, is:

  1. a general process of intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development;
  2. a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group;
  3. the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity.

Sociologists, in their turn, define culture as “the formation of traditions and trends that link humans in a common group.” So it’s safe to say that from a stage as early as the prehistoric time, human beings were involved in some sort of cultural activity.

At that point, however, it could not yet be defined as popular culture, even though it was a standardized practice. You see, popular culture is generally recognized as “the vernacular or people’s culture that predominates in a society at a point in time,” and it is determined by much more than just one single form of artistic expression.

Born in the USA

Pop culture, as we know it today, combines music, movies, TV shows, books and plays, but also sports, celebrities, cyber culture and even certain brands or the food we eat. Take, for example, McDonald’s, Nike, and Starbucks (particularly the Pumpkin Spice Latte), famous internet cats, or the Buzzfeed quiz that tells us what type of cupcake we are based on our favorite Death Metal bands.

Despite each country’s engaging in its own popular culture, the influence of American media products all over the world is undeniable. Kardashians aside, around 70-80% of all television shows aired in Europe are from the US, Hollywood is the biggest movie producer in the world in terms of revenue (India is the biggest in terms of amount of movies released per year), and 7 out of the 10 biggest musical acts in 2018 were American.

If American content is the most prevalent in our households, it’s no wonder it has an impact on several aspect of our lives, including the way we speak. And the influence goes way back. We are not just mimicking characters or reproducing lines of the shows or movies we watch now; we turn to older ones as well. I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse. It’s from 1972’s The Godfather. Some of the most memorable lines from Star Wars are from the original trilogy, released between 1977 and 1983: May the force be with you; it’s a trap; these are not the droids you’re looking for; and No, I’m your father. Yes, you’ve read it right. That’s really how he says it—not, Luke, I’m your father. We have the 90s’ classic Seinfeld to thank for the perfect way signal you’ve skip the boring part of a story, yadayadayada. And we really can’t be grateful enough for Friends for finally defining the friend zone and giving us the foolproof pick-up line how you doin’?

Fast forward by a couple of years, and the list only grows longer. More contemporary examples include How I Met Your Mother’s challenge accepted and legendary or The Big Bang Theory’s interjection bazinga! One of the TV shows that has had the biggest cultural impact in recent days is Game of Thrones. The show has provided us with phrases we can use on a daily basis, like Winter is coming (brazenly deployed when Tina from Accounting approaches your desk) or You know nothing, Jon Snow (uttered dejectedly when Tina from Accounting says you haven’t filed in your expenses correctly). In fact, Game of Thrones has built a fanbase so large, even Obama made a reference to Game of Thrones in public.

No matter how cool or un- your references are (Game of Thrones = cool, Grey’s Anatomy, not so much), it’s the sense of belonging to a community that makes pop culture such a big part of people’s lives.

Tim Delaney, sociologist and avid Seinfeld fan, describes it best:

“Popular culture allows large heterogeneous masses of people to identify collectively. It serves an inclusionary role in society as it unites the masses on ideals of acceptable forms of behavior. Along with forging a sense of identity which binds individuals to the greater society, consuming pop culture items often enhances an individual’s prestige in their peer group. Further, popular culture, unlike folk or high culture, provides individuals with a chance to change the prevailing sentiments and norms of behavior, as we shall see. So popular culture appeals to people because it provides opportunities for both individual happiness and communal bonding.”

It’s LeviOHsa, not LevioSAH

It is precisely the exchange of expressions derived from the media between people, and not necessarily their exposure to them, that influences language. Or so do some linguists say. The British sociolinguist Peter Trudgill argues that:

“The electronic media are not very instrumental in the diffusion of linguistic innovations, in spite of widespread popular notions to the contrary. The point about the TV set is that people, however, much they watch and listen to it, do not talk to it. […] Face-to-face interaction is necessary before diffusion takes place, precisely because it is only during face-to-face interaction that accommodation occurs.”

In other words, the mere exposure to media content is not enough for it to have a real impact on language. No matter how many shows or movies we binge watch, the catch phrases we learn from them only take off after we start reproducing them in our daily lives.

Walt Wolfram takes it a step further, acknowledging that TV shows and movies have, at least, some sort of influence on language:

“Although TV shows have clearly contributed some words to the vocabulary and facilitated the rapid spread of some popular expressions […] media influence is greatly exaggerated because people do not model their everyday speech after media personalities with whom they have no interpersonal interaction. […] In ordinary, everyday conversation, most people want to talk like their friends and acquaintances.”

Which brings me back to my friend Jane. It’s not surprising to see her adopt a phrase from a TV show she never watched. A great number of The Office fans around her crack That’s what she said jokes all the time, and so does she. Not because she got the reference from the beginning and wanted to engage in conversation about the show, but because it makes her feel like she’s part of something.

But let’s not dismiss the impact of popular culture on language just yet. Even though some linguists argue that the media plays just a very small role in language’s evolution, it is the pervasive presence of film, television, the internet and other media in our lives that introduces these phrases into our vocabulary in the first place.

If it weren’t for The Office, would we even know or use the expression “said the actress to the bishop”? In an effort to understand the heritage of their favorite show, diehard fans of the American version of The Office traced Michael Scott’s running joke to the original British version’s far more recondite crack. The idiom was in popular usage in the Royal Airforce in the 1940s, but it may be traced back to the Edwardian era.

I don’t know about you, but I think “said the actress to the bishop” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily. You know what Jane would say now.

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