Everyday Terms That Have Surprising Pop Culture Origins

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Popular culture - films, television series, books, etc. - often draws from the society in which it is produced, reflecting back to viewers and readers a version of the world they inhabit, sometimes reinforcing their points of view and other times challenging them.

However, the reverse also often happens. In fact, many of the expressions and terms people use in everyday speech can trace their origins to some pop-culture object. Taking a closer look at these particular phenomena demonstrates just how influential popular culture has been and remains, reshaping our very language and allowing us to find new ways of expressing ourselves.

  • The Term And What It Means: To stan something or someone — often an actor or a singer — is to display a disproportionate, perhaps even pathological, amount of affection toward them. 

    Where It Comes From: The use of this term to refer to an overzealous fan stems from the song of the same name by the rapper Eminem. In said song, the eponymous fan, enraged at what he perceives to be the singer’s dismissal, kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend by driving his car off a bridge. It then emerged in rapper Nas’s song “Ether,” in which it was used pejoratively

    In subsequent years, it slowly entered the popular lexicon. It first appeared in Urban Dictionary in 2008, at around the same time it also appeared in a tweet.

    14 votes
  • Banana Republic: The Colloquial Term Defining An Unstable Country Overly Dependent On A Single Resource Comes From O. Henry’s 1904 Short Story Collection
    Photo: Amazon
    24 VOTES

    Banana Republic: The Colloquial Term Defining An Unstable Country Overly Dependent On A Single Resource Comes From O. Henry’s 1904 Short Story Collection

    The Term And What It Means: The term “banana republic” is usually used by commentators and pundits to either disparage a nation that is unstable or, increasingly commonly, to juxtapose such a nation with a more stable one (typically in the United States or Europe).

    Where It Comes From: As the name suggests, the term originates from the many fruit companies who, during the 19th and 20th centuries, moved into various nations - particularly in Central and South America - and exploited their natural and human resources. Companies like United Fruit, for example, utilized the nation of Honduras to produce huge numbers of bananas for American consumption. 

    The term itself originated in a short story entitled “The Admiral,” written by O. Henry, part of his collection entitled Cabbages and Kings. Though the republic itself is a fictional nation named Anchuria, it is widely assumed to have been based on Honduras, where the author was living at the time.

    24 votes
  • Friend Zone: Fittingly, The Term Was Invented By Joey Tribbiani On An Episode Of ‘Friends’
    Photo: NBC

    The Term And What It Means: The friend zone typically refers to an interpersonal relationship in which one person is relegated by the other to the “friend zone” and thus is not seen as a potential romantic match by the other.

    Where It Comes From: As the name itself suggests, the term stems from the hit sitcom Friends, one of the most popular sitcoms of the 20th and early 21st centuries. 

    In particular, it was coined by the goofy but lovable Joey Tribbiani. Specifically, he uses it in the first season episode, “The Blackout.” Unsurprisingly, he uses it in reference to Ross’s chances with Rachel, which, at this point in the series, appear to be nil. Of course, Joey is ultimately proven wrong.

    24 votes
  • 4
    21 VOTES

    Yahoo: This Specific Idea Of An Untamed, Dangerous Brute Comes From ‘Gulliver’s Travels’

    The Term And What It Means: In addition to being the name of a once enormously successful internet company, the term “yahoo” is also used to refer to a person who is dangerous, unruly, and brutish. 

    Where It Comes From: As common as it is today, the term actually comes from one of the most famous works of 18th-century literature, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

    In the novel, the title character encounters a number of fantastical beings, of which the Yahoos are just one. Others include the miniature people known as Lilliputians and the horse-like Houyhnhnms. Unlike the latter, however, the Yahoos are vaguely humanoid in appearance, which is precisely what makes their disgusting behavior and strong stench all that much more appalling to Gulliver.

    21 votes
  • Tween: J.R.R. Tolkien Invented This In-Between Stage Of Life In ‘The Hobbit’
    Photo: The Return of the King / New Line Cinema

    The Term And What It Means: A relatively new term - emerging around 1988 - the term refers to the age between childhood and the teenage years, i.e., roughly 9-12.

    Where It Comes From: The term has its origins in The Lord of the Rings, the famous novel by British author J.R.R. Tolkien. As the narrator explains near the beginning of the book, hobbits believe one only reaches maturity once they reach the age of 33. “Tween” refers to the period of one’s 20s, when it is still common for young hobbits to behave somewhat irresponsibly. 

    This description by the narrator helps to explain the general behavior of the diminutive race, and it helps to add anthropological texture to Tolkien’s secondary world.

    20 votes
  • Valley Girl: The California-Specific Stereotype Was Codified By A Frank And Moon Zappa Song
    Photo: Clueless / Paramount Pictures

    The Term And What It Means: The term “Valley girl” is usually used to refer, often disparagingly, to a young woman understood to be shallow, vain, and not especially intelligent or well-read who speaks in a dialect specific to California’s San Fernando Valley.

    Where It Comes From: Though the San Fernando Valley has long had its own particular dialect of English, Frank Zappa’s single, “Valley Girl,” helped bring both the language pattern and the “Valley girl” herself to a broader audience. Zappa’s daughter, Moon, delivered a monologue in the signature “Valleyspeak,” and it soon took the country by storm. 

    In fact, it became a bit of a vernacular for young people, serving to distinguish them from their elders. Its appearance in such films as Clueless helped to further solidify its place in the American linguistic landscape of the 1980s and 1990s.

    20 votes