It's Groundhog Day as the Oscars come around again

Revenant is a ghost who returns to haunt the present. Or a living ghost – a person reappearing in your life after an extended absence. Fittingly, the word itself is a revenant, the current DiCaprio saga reviving a quaint piece of vocab from yore.

Films wield that power. We saw the same effect occur in Angelina Jolie's Maleficent, just as Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York had many of us acquiring a literary term. (And in case you forgot: a crown represents a king, synecdochically.) Likewise, there's a sequence of movies that represents the thousands produced over the ages, thanks to evolving from titles into adopted phrases.

As the red carpet is being shampooed in LA, the Oscars a week away, let's salute those films that dictionaries have ...
As the red carpet is being shampooed in LA, the Oscars a week away, let's salute those films that dictionaries have accepted as newborn phrases.  Photo: John Shakespeare

As the red carpet is being shampooed in LA, the Oscars a week away, let's salute those films that dictionaries have accepted as newborn phrases. This month alone revived Groundhog Day (the numbing sense of a repeated event in your life), while Rain Man remains a genius on the autism spectrum. Sophie's Choice now means any impossible dilemma between two prized items, where choosing one dooms the other.

Yes, I realise the William Styron book inspired the Streep/Kline flick. Just as Rambo and Bambi had their own novel precedents, though often it's the silver screen that exerts the greater linguistic impact. Non-fiction books such as The Perfect Storm and The Right Stuff owe much to their movie treatments when it comes to entering everyday idiom.

Sure, Catch 22 and Lolita both enriched English from the bookshelf, via sales and infamy respectively. But these were exceptions. If not for the box-office, The Horse Whisperer, Pay It Forward, or An Indecent Proposal would merely be random words. As for Deliverance, that's now a byword for the incestuous boondocks, complete with banjo strains.

Looking at original screenplays, the list of enduring phrases is longer than The Bucket List (2007), as Forceful as Star Wars, starker than The Full Monty. On the doco side, Murderball (wheelchair rugby) has entered our mental arena, along with Errol Morris' Fog of War, popularising the jargon for situational blindness during military operations. Yet both acquisitions fade to Catfish, any online user who adopts a false identity.


Fatal Attraction. Thelma & Louise. Gaslight. Cinema's legacy to language is bigger than Ben-Hur. Even in combination the titles thrive. A Stepford app is a software program with a conformist design. The Sideways effect describes the influence any film may wield in retail, such as the pinot boom that movie sparked in 2004.

Yet Quo Vadis the Australian films in this space? I struggled to name any local titles that have joined our lexicon. The apocalyptic shorthand of Mad Max goes close, along with the scary beyond of Wolf Creek, but maybe I'm dreamin'. Indeed, our cinema fares better in catchphrases, from Gallipoli's steel springs to Mick Dundee's knife comparisons. Meanwhile The Castle's vibe goes directly to the poolroom.

Away from titles and catchy quotes, cinema has bestowed even more subtle keepsakes to English. Not quite a cast of thousands, but a fair ensemble. All bells and whistles, say, links to the bespoke Wurlitzers of the old movie houses, the organs owning a panoply of special effects to accompany the silent matinee.

Cutting to the chase was said to be a mantra of Hal Roach, the 1920s producer behind Laurel and Hardy. His credo demanded immediate action to keep the patrons entertained. Viewers of the Oscars may rely on the same imperative, as the grand preamble will doubtless delay the opening of envelopes.

That same all-singing, all-dancing mindset (another filmdom relic of the 1920s) is why we love to hate the spangled fuss of Oscars night. Frankly, even if you don't give a damn, cinema will continue to make a linguistic offer you can't refuse. The evidence is titanic, from a box of chocolates to groundhog day  (the numbing sense of a repeated event in your life).