The Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrases
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Dec 28, 2002

The Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrases

By David Dale

Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, December 28, 2002


Compiled by Anna Farkas

Oxford University Press, 357pp, $55

What kind of society are we living in when The Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrases (ODC) can attribute the phrase \"Dingoes ate my baby\" to a band for which Seth Green plays lead guitar in the vampire series Buffy, and the phrase \"Maybe the dingo ate your baby\" to Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Seinfeld? Only in passing does the ODC remark that both are \"a comic, and therefore possibly irreverent\" reference to \"the true story portrayed in the 1989 film A Cry in the Dark, in which Meryl Streep plays a mother accused of murdering her baby\".

Thanks Julia, thanks Seth, thanks Meryl, for enriching the vocabulary of modern life. And sorry about that, Lindy - your chance at immortality is thwarted, leaving Barry Humphries and Malcolm Fraser as the only Australasians to be credited in the latest product of the Oxford word factory (for, respectively, \"Point Percy at the porcelain\" and \"Life isn\'t meant to be easy\", even if \"the conscience of Australian conservatives\" did borrow the second phrase from George Bernard Shaw\'s 1921 play Back To Methuselah).

And thanks Oxford University Press for reminding us that dictionaries, however impressive the title, are always the work of individuals whose obsessions may not match those of the reader.

In the case of the ODC, the individual taking responsibility for choosing the 800 expressions that will now be set in stone is Anna Farkas, described on the backflap as \"an experienced freelance writer and researcher\", and \"an American citizen who has lived in the UK for over 10 years\".

Here\'s another thing we can say about Farkas: she loves The X-Files, which contributed no fewer than 12 expressions to her dictionary. Most would agree that \"The truth is out there\" is an enduring element of early 21st-century dialogue, but I have serious doubts about the staying power of \"Believe to understand\", \"In the big inning\", \"Government denies knowledge\"; and \"Resist or serve\".

Farkas\'s favourite source is a series called The Fast Show, shown in Britain between 1994 and 1997, which gets 24 entries, including \"Bono estente\"; \"Hello, we\'re Cockneys\"; \"I\'ll get me coat\"; \"Jumpers for goalposts\"; and \"Radiant, sir, radiant\".

Certainly they sound like catchphrases, but shouldn\'t we expect a little evidence that they have made a lasting impact on Western culture? Especially when she admits only two lines from Monty Python\'s Flying Circus (\"And now for something completely different\" and \"Nudge, nudge, wink wink\").

Farkas does not explain her criteria for inclusion, leaving us to conclude that most expressions are in the book simply because she likes the sound of them.

She offers admirable background on classics such as \"We are not amused\" (no proof that Queen Victoria ever said it); \"We have ways of making you talk\" (originating not with a German but with an Arab in the 1935 film Lives of a Bengal Lancer); and \"If anything can go wrong, it will\" (a law first uttered in 1949 by Edward A. Murphy, an engineer in the US Air Force).

However, she devalues Oxford\'s currency by giving equal weight to ephemera such as \"How bona to vada your eek\" (1960s British radio show called Round The Horne); \"Yehudi?\" (Bob Hope\'s 1940s radio show); \"Oh, my lord\" (1980s US sitcom Perfect Strangers); and \"Hey!\" (Cartman in 1990s TV series South Park).

To coin two phrases that will undoubtedly appear in the next edition: \"Just because something sounds like a catchphrase, that doesn\'t mean it is - it needs to have spread beyond its source\"; and \"We expect more from a dictionary bearing the name of Oxford.\"


David Dale is a Herald journalist.

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