Viral videos move fast, but when was the last time the Internet delivered a phrase that was almost instantly injected into the lexicon? It's TV that has the power to launch a neologism overnight into exchanges between family members, cubicle mates, even politicians in debates.
It doesn’t matter if the early adopters watched the show, news or sports coverage where the phrase debuted. Word whips around and quickly scores are employing the idiom to knowing laughs. Resonant TV-generated epigrams don’t always have to be used in a linear broadcast, but can emerge in the ripples.
On Friday, the Supreme Court finally brought an end to the FCC’s pursuit to get CBS to pay a fine for allowing America to witness an uncovered Janet Jackson bosom in the 2004 Super Bowl. Arguably, the most lasting impact of the exposure won’t be the court ruling – did anyone know federal judges were still reviewing the evidence? -- but how the incident brought the “wardrobe malfunction” apologia into the vernacular.
There are two pillars of a breakout TV phrase: an ability to extend across generations – as people don't know its origins -- and versatility.
How many times has “wardrobe malfunction” been used both humorously -- and maybe frighteningly seriously -- to defuse all kinds of embarrassing situations? Years from now, the children of Generation Z will still be using it and won’t have a clue about its roots. Parents tell their kids, “Say goodnight, Gracie.” The kids are thinking I get the idea, but that’s not my name.
There have been many stabs at the best TV catchphrases of all time. In 2006, TV Land offered up Ed McMahon’s “Heeere’s Johnny …” as the winner. Certainly, that gets points for its multi-functionality -- similar to “Yada, yada, yada” (no. 16 in the TV Land rankings).
Some more recent – though not that current anymore -- notable performers were "The Tribe Has Spoken" (no. 80), “Is That Your Final Answer” (no. 46) and (inexplicably) “You’re Fired” (no. 3).
“Suit Up” from CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother” made the list. But, “Wait For It” seems a better entry from the hit comedy, though it may have debuted after the votes were in.
Entertainment Weekly lamented Project Runway’s “Make It Work” was left off. A very legitimate complaint.
TV continues to have such capacity for sparking sayings that it's fair to wonder which shows or moments gave rise to “It is what it is,” “Threw me under the bus” and “I’m just sayin.’” It's hard to believe, but they seem to have roots elsewhere.
Recently, probably the most enduring catchphrase came just about two years ago when NBA star LeBron James declared his intentions to move to another team before a national audience on ESPN. “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat,” he said.
James continues to be panned for this apparent hubris. Actually, he seemed more conflicted than boastful.
Regardless, “Take my talents to (fill in the blank)” … is unforgettable and as versatile as James on the court.
Of course, there’s another batch of TV phrases that can have a lot of staying power. And they're potentially more valuable: advertising taglines.