11 Literary References People Make Without Realizing It
Sunday, March 1, 2009
1. Big Brother. Big Brother is the name of the omnipresent dictatorship in George Orwell’s “1984”. Over time, it’s really evolved into being the go-to term for when the government is over-monitoring its people. But its origins are literary… it’s not just a modern-day cautionary catchphrase or a second-tier reality show featuring anti-Semites occasionally having sex.
2. Catch 22. Everyone knows about catch 22s… situations where, no matter what choice you make, something bad is going to happen. What most people (including myself, before I started researching this list) don’t realize: Joseph Heller actually created the term when he wrote his novel “Catch-22”.
The fact that he picked “22” as the number after “catch” was fairly arbitrary. First he wanted to go with “18”, but there was another World War II novel out already with 18 in the title (Leon Uris’s “Mila 18”). So Heller decided to switch to 11. But that was in the title of the Rat Pack movie “Ocean’s 11”, which came out a year earlier.
Then he went for 17, but that also got rejected, because of the World War II movie “Stalag 17”. So, at this point, Heller gave up and randomly picked 14. His publisher rejected that because they didn’t like the number and think it was “funny”. So finally, he picked 22, everyone was cool with it, and a pop culture catchphrase was born.
Ironically, the entire point of referring to doomed situations as catch [anything] was because Heller wanted to point out that, when bureaucracy gets bad enough to cause such problems, they may even start giving those problems numbers. Doubtful that he foresaw the bureaucracy behind actually picking the number for the title of his book.
3. Women: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. I would assume that few, if any, people realize that this isn’t a quote from “I Love Lucy” or a Borscht Belt comedian… it’s actually from “Lysistrata”, a Greek comedy written by Aristophanes… back in 411 B.C.
The translations vary, but the most commonly accepted one is “These impossible women! How they do get around us! How true the saying: ‘Can’t live with them, or without them.’”
No word on whether Aristophanes wrote any plays about the poor quality of airline food or notable differences between black people and white people.
4. Lolita. Using the word “Lolita” to describe a sexually-advanced underage girl actually comes from the novel “Lolita”, written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1955.
Interesting fact: The 12-year-old girl in the book who the main character becomes sexually obsessed with isn’t named Lolita, she’s named Dolores. Lolita is a nickname Nabokov uses for Dolores. (?)
5. Scrooge. Scrooge has taken on a pop culture life of its own, but, at its core, it’s still the name of the character in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.
It’s not just someone who ruins your Christmas or an old rich Scottish duck who dives headfirst into his piles of coins.
6. Siren song. When we talk about women luring us in through their sweet, sweet voices (like, for instance, my mysterious and inexplicable love of Kelly Clarkson), we talk about their siren song.
Which, of course, is a reference to the sirens of Greek mythology, most notably mentioned during the non-boring portion of Homer’s “Odyssey”.
(He also popularized “cyclops.” There you go. This entry is a two-for-one. I should go register 12points.com now.)
7. Uncle Tom. It’s a shame that “Uncle Tom” has become such a pejorative term, referring to a black person who tries to assimilate into white culture through subservience. Because the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, where the term comes from, actually had a major impact in the abolitionist movement.
Meanwhile, the n-word gets thrown around in hip-hop as a term of endearment, even though, in the exact same time period as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that was the ultimate expression of hate in the pro-slavery lexicon.
Just thought I’d point that out. And yes, I know an easy response to me raising that paradox is “Sam, you’re white so you don’t get it.” But I think that trivializes the point I’m making, the correct answer to which just seems to be “There is no answer, it’s just the way things are.”
8. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. People say it, and, generally, we know we’re alluding to SOMETHING… it’s just hard to remember what. The answer is Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”. That’s the opening line.
I didn’t realize this before, but “A Tale of Two Cities” is actually the best selling novel of all time… and the seventh-best selling book of all time, behind just the Bible, three books by Mao Tse-tung, a Chinese dictionary and the Koran.
9. Yahoo. We know it either as a way to describe an idiot or as the Betamax of search engines. But… yahoo is really a term that was coined by Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels”.
In the book, Gulliver ends up in a country ruled by horses… where they boss around deformed, brutish, primitive humans, called Yahoos.
That’s how the term yahoo entered the cultural lexicon as a way to describe low-brow humans. And, apparently, the guys who founded Yahoo.com picked that name because they felt the word yahoo described the unsophisticated, undeveloped Internet at that time.
10. Blood on my hands. This comes from “Macbeth”. Little tip for future games of Trivial Pursuit: Anytime there’s any Shakespeare quote about blood, it’s probably from “Macbeth”. That play was blood CRAZY, man. It’s like Shakespeare’s “Saw 2”.
11. I’d sell my soul to the Devil. We all think about selling our soul to the devil once in a while… and not just for a donut… and that’s all thanks to the legend of Faust. Specifically, the versions we all know the best, Marlowe’s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” and Goethe’s “Faust”.
Just remember that the next time you talk about selling your soul — you’re not being funny or edgy, you’re referencing classic European literature. Which is edgy only in a King-Grafton-Brown-only airport bookstore.
I’m quite proud of myself for knowing most of these. 3 and 11 being the exceptions.
O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
For me: “End of finals week.”
I could probably count all the sleep I’ve gotten this past week on both hands and a foot. Oh well. I’ll be back to posting on a more regular basis next week.
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is one of my favorite books and I am so excited to learn that Zafon has come out with a prequel: The Angel’s Game. This “new” book was actually published in Spain last April, but the English translation has only just come out. I’m a bit strapped for cash otherwise I’d pick up a copy at the bookstore, but I will definitely be stopping at my local library as soon as the book is finished being catalogued.
My absolute favorite bible verse. There’s something so hauntingly beautiful about it. It is also the opening line of Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant film, The Seventh Seal.
Tumblr is interesting in that it doesn’t much let you interact with your followers or those you follow except to hope that people see something you comment on in a “reblog” of theirs and that they might reblog and comment and so on and so forth, resulting in a thoroughly annoying conversation to those other followers who don’t have any idea what you’re talking about and probably don’t much care.
Anyway, to get to know you guys a little bit better, I’d like you to all answer this post with anything and everything you can (and are willing to) share with me about yourself in under 140 characters.
Edit: I should probably start:
Bri, 19, California. Major: Religious Studies. Career Goal: Librarian. Life Goal: Motherhood. Hobbies: reading, sleeping, loon-like dancing.
Feel free to tell me something random like the name of your first pet, the number of shoes you own, or how you’re convinced that there are small spacemen living inside your brain and no you are not being paranoid. =D
Rules, Mt. Holyoke College, 1837:
- No young lady shall become a member of Mt. Holyoke Seminary who cannot kindle a fire, mash potatoes, and repeat the multiplication table and at least two-thirds of the shorter catechism.
- Every member of the school shall walk a mile a day unless a freshet, earthquake, or some other calamity prevent.
- No young lady shall devote more than an hour a day to miscellaneous reading.
- No young lady is expected to have gentlemen acquaintances unless they are returned missionaries or agents of benevolent societies.
They weren’t allowed to read more than 1 hour a day?!
“No young lady shall devote more than an hour a day to miscellaneous reading.”
I’m sure they read more, just nothing fun and interesting.
I am truly blessed to have grown up in a house filled with so many books. Even more so, I have been blessed to have a father who loves books and reading as much as mine does. One of my favorite things about my dad is that any time I talk to him about anything (most often school-related conversations), he is always able to say, “I have a book about that” and then prattle off the author and title. He can usually find any book he has in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, even though we have no sort of cataloguing system and we have books everywhere.
Anyway, my family has recently sold our house and my father and I have decided to use the move we’ll be making as an excuse to finally organize his books (by subject). Well, as we were doing this, we somehow started playing a game in which I would give him any topic, any topic at all, and he would find me a book or two on/relating to that topic.
He exceeded all of my expectations, finding me books on the Ottomon Empire, reptiles, the (first) French Revolution, history of early film, fallacies, pop art, and church/cathedral building. I thought I had finally stumped him when it took him more than the average three seconds to come up with something on shoes but he finally did think of a book he had on fashion and I decided that that was close enough. All in all, I really enjoyed this game of ours and was absolutely astounded at how quickly book titles and authors came to his mind. I was even more amazed at how quickly he located those titles. Now, with more than four thousand books to his name, there is no doubt that he has not read everything he owns, but he does seem to have read at least a little bit of everything. And, well, I just can’t fathom how he’s done it.
He is the most amazing person I know—for so many more reasons than just what I’ve mentioned above, but even if that was it, I’d have to admit that he’s still pretty impressive.
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the living room couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering
any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.” —Dorianne Laux, “Antilamentation” (via catprism)