The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Catchphrases

Catchphrases are expressions that spread to the common culture.

To be amused at what you read — that is the great spring of quotation. — Charles Edward Montague

While researching the origin of the assertion, “It’s the economy, stupid*” for a paper I was writing on the influences on election outcomes, I came across a Wikipedia entry devoted to well-known political catchphrases. It was organized by country, and I paid most attention to the United States because I am (relatively) familiar with US political history. I was able to identify who first introduced almost all of the phrases, maybe because I do know something about US politics but more probably because these phrases are memorable and have become part of the common culture.

There are also well-known catchphrases from movies (“Go ahead, make my day”) and advertising (“Sorry, Charlie”). Many others come from popular songs (“All you need is love”). Sometimes catchphrases even jump domains, like Clara Peller’s “Where’s the beef?” which was originally used in an ad for Wendy’s hamburgers and later by Walter Mondale in his 1984 primary campaign against Gary Hart.

By definition, a catchphrase is a frequently-repeated expression that spreads to the common culture through the media and by word of mouth. The term catchphrase first appeared in common parlance around 1850 and was used to described words or phrases that got “caught” in one’s mind.

Some catchphrases become a trademark or signature, not only of the person who first uttered them but also — on occasion — for those who like to repeat them. So, years ago I had a colleague who signified his apparent agreement with anything I would say not by responding “Yes” or “OK” but instead by saying “There you go.” I never asked, but I always fretted that he was being dismissive and making fun of me, as in “There you go again,” the phrase used to devastating effect by Ronald Reagan in his 1980 presidential campaign debate with Jimmy Carter. Or maybe my colleague was simply being encouraging, riffing on the more positive catchphrase “You go girl [boy]!” But regardless, the phrase was very much a defining feature of my colleague and how he interacted with me.

An interesting study by psychologist Richard Harris and his colleagues (2008) asked several hundred US college students to think of a movie from which they liked to quote. What was the quote? From what movie did it come? When did they use the quote? How did they feel when quoting? And why did they quote?

Every single research participant — 100% — could describe a movie from which he or she liked to quote, and almost all of them could provide the quote correctly and identify its source. For both males and females, comedies were the most frequent source of favorite movie quotes (70%). Participants usually repeated the quote to their friends or family members who had seen the movie in question, and participants typically said that quoting made them feel “happy” (67%). Amusement — of the self and others — was the typical reason for using the quote (80%).

So, catchphrases from movies — especially comedies — play a positive role in the lives of young people. They allow terse communication. They are amusing. They make one feel happy.

Whether these conclusions apply to catchphrases from other domains is unknown, as is whether they apply to catchphrases repeated by older individuals. But I suspect that the communication function of catchphrases in particular generalizes well. Catchphrases tap a common, rich, and indeed vivid understanding, and they offer up an implied metaphor, likening the situation in which they are used to the situation in which they originated. So, when temporarily leaving a contentious group meeting, I like to say “I’ll be back,” in effect promising that like the Terminator, I will return with my strong intentions and opinions intact.

Is a catchphrase a cliché? I suppose it depends on whether the catchphrase has lost its power with repetition. But even when they become clichéd, catchphrases have special properties that set them apart from clichés per se. Catchphrases are invariably short. They have very simple sentence structures, sometimes using understood rather than explicit subjects (“Make my day!). Catchphrases are often funny or ironic (“Yada, yada, yada").

Does positive psychology have catchphrases? Of course. At least for those familiar with the field, there are familiar phrases like:

business-as-usual psychology” (referring to the problem-focused orientation of typical psychological theory, research, and application);

Break through the zero point” (referring to the goal of positive psychology to address and assess what goes right in life as well as what goes wrong, where a score of zero that signifies being problem-free is as good as it apparently gets); and

Other people matter” (referring to the central role of social relationships in the good life).

At least as I remember things, these phrases originated in my own writing and lecturing. At the very least, I certainly helped to popularize them within positive psychology. A few years ago, when invited to write a chapter for an edited book on positive psychology, I received standardized instructions from the editor saying that clichés should not be used. My own catchphrases were cited as examples. Hmmm. I was both amused and annoyed. If I thought of a catchphrase myself, can’t I at least use it?

Catchphrases may also exist at a purely individual and idiosyncratic level. These are sayings that are not obviously drawn from another source but are frequently used by someone to communicate with friends and associates, as in the example of my “there you go” colleague. I am not aware of any research on idiosyncratic catchphrases, but I speculate that they also have positive roles in communication.

How would you know if you have your own catchphrase? Ask your friends, who may be in a better — i.e., more aware — position that you to comment on your own habits. A year ago, a friend of mine gave me a t-shirt she had made up for me that proclaimed “It is what it is,” and once I saw it, I realized that I am prone to this proclamation. Since then, I continue to use the catchphrase but now more deliberately. I hope it has a greater impact as a result.

So, live long and prosper, dear readers. It is what it is. After all, resistance is futile.

* This phrase is widely attributed to Bill Clinton's advisor James Carville and was used by Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign against George H. W., Bush.

Reference

Harris, Richard J., Werth, Abigail J., Bures, Kyle E., & Bartel, Chelsea M. (2008). Social movie quoting: What, why, and how? Ciencias Psicologicas, 2, 35-45.

Postscript

I am writing this essay as the Fall 2012 semester approaches at the University of Michigan. I am already thinking of exam questions, which require a certain mindset I am now practicing. And oh yes, as you may also be aware, there is a presidential election looming in the United States. Will any memorable catchphrases emerge from the campaign? We shall see. Que sera, sera.

In the meantime, here is a brief quiz about well-known US political catchphrases. Some were said by Republicans, others by Democrats. Some are funny, usually on purpose. Some are ironic, given subsequent events. Still others are inspirational, always on purpose. And all are terse. Who first said each? Answers are provided at the end. Don’t peek!

A. "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

B. "Yes, we can."

C. "Read my lips: no new taxes."

D. "Ich bin ein Berliner."

E. “Four-score and seven years ago.”

F. “I hate broccoli.”

G. "I'm not a crook."

H. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

I. "The buck stops here."

J. "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." For extra credit: To whom was this said?

K. “Mission accomplished.”’

L. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

M. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Answers

A. Richard Nixon

B. Barack Obama

C. George H. W. Bush

D. John Kennedy; according to an urban legend, this statement literally translates as “I am a jelly donut,” but per Wikipedia, most German-speaking individuals seem to disagree and understand its intended meaning “I am a Berliner.”

E. Abraham Lincoln

F. George H. W., Bush

G. Richard Nixon

H. Ronald Reagan

I. Harry Truman

J. Lloyd Bentsen, to Daniel Quayle

K. George W. Bush

L. Franklin Roosevelt

M. Ronald Reagan

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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