To Arrakis and Beyond: The Language of Dune

Dune, CC-BY 2.0 Shawn Allen

The fictional universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga is incredibly expansive, with each book in the series accompanied by a glossary of more than 100 terms. With the release of Denis Villeneuve’s latest film adaptation, some moviegoers have set to frantic Googling, desperate to tell their sardaukar from their shai-hulud. Herbert dug into a deep well of far-ranging influences, especially from the Muslim world, in creating the language and mythology of the Dune-iverse; here, we dig into some Dune words and their unusual origins.



Dune’s most obvious etymological influences are from Arabic, with Herbert drawing inspiration not just from the language but from the history of Islam and the geography of the Arabian peninsula. Dozens of terms from the books and movies are borrowed wholesale from classical and colloquial Arabic; dozens more are loosely adapted from Arabic words and phrases. Blogger Khalid Baheyeldin has attempted to catalogue all the Islamic and Arabic influenced words in Dune; Herbert himself spoke at length about the saga’s Islamic influences in a 1978 interview.

In particular, the language of the Fremen, the natives of the desert planet Arrakis, borrows heavily from Arabic. For example, Muad-dib is the Fremen name that protagonist and eventual messiah figure Paul Atreides chooses for himself. In the Fremen language, muad-dib is a type of desert mouse (and also a constellation shaped like the mouse – as with so many elements and symbols in Dune, it’s complicated). In modern Arabic, muad’dib (مؤدب) means ‘teacher’.


Lisan al-Gaib 

Lisan al-Gaib is the Fremen word for a prophet or messiah from another world (Spoiler alert: it’s Paul). In Arabic, lisan al-gaib (لسان الغيب)  translates to ‘hidden tongue’ or ‘unseen tongue’, possibly signifying the power of a prophet to give voice to things unseen. Another Fremen word for messiah, mahdi, is directly cribbed from an analogous concept in Islamic eschatology: the word mahdi (ٱلْمَهْدِيّ‎) translates to ‘the guided one’.



Perhaps the most well-known Arabic loanword in Dune is one that didn’t make it into the movie. Jihad (جِهَاد), usually translated as ‘struggle’, is a concept that majorly factors into the books’ mythology and plot. The Butlerian Jihad, which occurred thousands of years before the events of Dune, was a pivotal event that saw humanity overthrowing computers and banning any intelligent technology. Thousands of years later, Paul foresees another jihad committed in his name, which eventually comes to pass in the sequels.

Villeneuve’s Dune omitted the loaded word, presumably wanting to avoid associations with contemporary Islamic terrorism. Instead, the film calls the story’s prophesied holy war a crusade—arguably an equally loaded word that carries historical anti-Islamic associations. 



The world of Dune is an imagined far future of our own world: therefore, the religious and philosophical ideas presented in Dune are canonically related to those from history. This becomes obvious in terms like Zensunni, the Fremen religion that is a mix of—you guessed it—Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam. 

Sunni Islam is one of the two main branches of Islam, and comprises up to ninety percent of Muslims worldwide. The word sunni comes from the sunnah (سنة‎), the practices and traditions of Islam as documented in the records of Muhammad’s life and teachings, the hadith

While the word Zen is Japanese, Zen Buddhism originated in China, where it is called Chán (禪), a word which in turn derives from the Sanskrit dhyāna, usually translated as ‘meditation’ or ‘training of the mind’. And while actress Zendaya stars in Dune (where her character, Chani, is an adherent of Zensunni religion), her name comes not from Zen Buddhism but from the word Tendayi, Shona for ‘to give thanks’. 


Bene Gesserit

The Bene Gesserit (pronounced with a soft g, at least in the 2021 film) are a matriarchal religious order that has been orchestrating events in the Dune universe for millennia before the story begins, including a carefully manipulated messiah-breeding program and a system, called the Missionaria Protectiva, of sowing their religious beliefs throughout the universe. Unlike some of the terms Herbert borrowed from Arabic, the etymology of Bene Gesserit is unclear, if indeed it has an etymology beyond Herbert’s imagination. 

In Latin, bene gesserit roughly translates to ‘borne well’ or ‘carried well’. Gesserit is a verb form of gerere, from which we get the Latin root gest, found in words such as digest, gesture, and—most relevant here—gestation. Other terms associated with the Bene Gesserit, such as missionaria protectiva and panoplia propheticus, are also derived from Latin.

However, there are other theories on the origins of bene gesserit: Frank Herbert’s son Brian suggested the word was meant to evoke Jesuit, recalling the prestige of that real-life religious order. Baheyeldin suggests that the term is yet another borrowing from Arabic: a rough transliteration of the Arabic bene jazira (بني جزيرة), meaning ‘sons of the island/peninsula’. 


Kwisatz Haderach

One of  the most remarked-upon etymologies in Dune, kwisatz haderach is the term that the Bene Gesserit use to refer to the prophesied figure they have been trying to engineer for generations. In-universe, it is translated as ‘the shortening of the way’. 

Herbert borrowed both the term and the meaning from the Zohar, a foundational text of Kabbalah, in which the Hebrew Kefitzat Haderech (קְפִיצַת הַדֶּרֶךְ) refers to a shortened road or journey, a miraculous leap between locations. Indeed, Herbert seems to have taken inspiration from Kabbalistic thought in many respects when writing Dune, a story that delves deep into themes of messianism and esoteric or mystical knowledge, both important concepts in Kabbalah. 



In the Dune-iverse, characters travel short distances by air via ornithopters—’thopters for short—aircraft that have flapping wings like birds, rather than helical rotors. Ornithopter shares the Greek root -pter with its real-world analogue the helicopter, plus ornith-, a Greek root meaning ‘bird’. 

While you aren’t likely to see one flying around, ornithopters aren’t Frank Herbert’s invention. Leonardo da Vinci actually designed a machine to mimic avian flight in 1485, and since then there have been ornithopters powered by humans, rubber bands, and engines. Funnily enough, the ornithopters in Villeneuve’s Dune don’t look like birds at all, but helicopters whose rotors have been replaced by dragonfly wings. It might be more accurate, then, to call them anisopters, after anisoptera – literally, unequal wings—the scientific term for dragonflies.

Words on the Grift: Our Favorite Ways of Saying ‘Con Artist’

Thirty years ago on this day, classic con artist flick The Grifters was released. We love everything about the film, but perhaps especially the lingo. It’s inspired us to take a look at some fun ways to say grifter.

On the grift

The word grifter is from about 1915, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and seems to come from grafter, someone who grafts or makes money dishonestly. Graft meaning dishonest gain is originally U.S. slang, says the OED, originating around 1865. The origin is uncertain, and might either come from graft meaning “job” or “a small shoot or scion of a tree inserted in another tree as the stock which is to support and nourish it.”


Before you swindle a mark, you’ve got to catch one first. The term cony-catcher is from about 1591, says the OED, where cony refers to a rabbit or rabbit skin. (For more on rabbit words, check out this post.) Gull-catcher is from about 1616, namely Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Here comes my noble gull-catcher.” A gull is a person who’s easily tricked. 

Con words

To con someone, meaning to swindle them by first winning their confidence or trust, is from about 1896, says the OED. Before that was confidence man (1849), confidence game (1856), and confidence trick (1884). The verb form of confidence (“They are ‘confidenced’ of what money they may have about them”) is from about 1875, becoming shortened (“Don’t try to con me with no such talk”) in 1896. Meanwhile con artist is from about 1878 and con man from 1889.

Batfowlers, flimflammers, and illywhackers, oh my!

Then there are the con words that are just fun to say. Before batfowler referred to a fraudster, it meant someone who practiced batfowling (natch). So what the heck is batfowling? It’s an old-timey way of hunting birds: the batfowler would hold some kind of light, and beat the bushes or trees (perhaps with a bat) where their prey roosted. The disturbed birds would fly out toward the light and be caught in nets. This sense of batfowling is from about 1440, says the OED, while the swindling sense is from 1602.

Flimflammer is from about 1881 and comes from flimflam meaning nonsense or humbug. Gazumper is from about 1932 while gazump meaning to swindle or cheat is UK slang from the late 1920s with an unknown origin. 

Illywhacker is an Australian slang term possibly from the 1940s. One theory for its origin is that it comes from eeler-spee or eeler-speeler, pig Latin versions of spieler, a cheat or sharper. Whack the illy, to perform small cons, might be a back-formation of illywhacker. Illywhacker is also the name of a 1985 novel by Australian author Peter Carey.

Want more tricky words? Check out this swell mob, these scofflaws, scallywags, rascals, and rogues, this criminal element, and these unsavory types.

Heathers, Much? Our 7 Favorite Slang Terms from ‘Heathers’


We can hardly believe it but Heathers is turning 25 this year. We thought we’d celebrate with some slushies, croquet, and TNT, but that seemed like a lot of trouble so we’re rounding up our seven favorite slang terms from the movie instead.

EXPLETIVE ALERT: if you’re familiar with Heathers, you’re familiar with its, um, colorful expletives, two of which will be discussed at some length below.


Veronica: “What is your damage, Heather?”

The writer of the film, Daniel Waters, says he stole the phrase, “What’s your damage?” — another way of saying, “What’s your problem?” — from “one of [his] little camper girls” for whom he was a camp counselor, presumably in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

What’s the damage?, meaning “how much will it cost?”, comes from the mid-18th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary. We couldn’t find a year of origin for What’s your problem? meaning “why are you upset?” However, according to the OED, that’s not my problem is from the late 1940s and that’s your (his, etc.) problem is from around 1951.

fuck me gently with a chainsaw

Veronica: “Why can’t we talk to other kinds of people?”
Heather Chandler: “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Theresa?”

Fuck me in this context is “an expression of surprise, contempt, outrage, disgust, boredom, frustration, or of dismay at undesired events happening to oneself.” The OED says the phrase has been around since at least the late 1920s, evinced in the following from The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning: “‘Well, you can fuck me!’ exclaimed the astonished Martlow.”

Waters says that one of his college friends “used to say ‘F— me gently with a crowbar,” and that “apparently ‘f— me gently’ was at one time a common expression in England.” According to Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour Of American English From Plymouth Rock To Silicon Valley, as cited by this blogger, fuck me gently, meaning “don’t take advantage of me too much, don’t cheat me too blatantly,” gained popularity among the British troops during World War I.


Veronica: “Why are you such a megabitch?”
Heather Duke: “Because I can be.”

Megabitch, which we were thrilled to find is in the online OED, refers to, figuratively, a really big bitch. The combining form mega comes from the Greek megas, “great, large, vast, big, high, tall; mighty, important.” While mega often means large or great, in scientific terms it refers to “one million.” A megacorpse or megadeath (not to be confused with Megadeth) is one million deaths, a unit used in nuclear warfare.

Megabitch seems to have originated around 1985, says the OED, a few years before Heathers, in Adweek: “The Joan Collins/Alexis Carrington device here is inspired. She gets to play off the megabitch appeal of Alexis while adding a slapstick, comic twist.”

While mega is mainly used as an intensifier, in the mid-1980s it gained its own meaning of great or excellent: “The new Duran Duran album is so mega.”


Heather Chandler: “Goddamn, Heather, you were with me in study hall when I thought of it.”
Heather Duke: “I forgot.”
Heather Chandler: “Such a pillowcase.”

We’re assuming pillowcase refers to someone empty- or soft-headed, like a pillow or pillowcase. The term may play off basket case, someone in “a completely hopeless or useless condition.” Basket case has a gruesome origin: during World War I, it referred to a soldier who had had lost all of his limbs and had to be carried around in a basket.

Swatch dog

Veronica: “Betty Finn was a true friend and I sold her out for a bunch of Swatch dogs and Diet Coke heads.”

Swatch dog is a play on watchdog (and Diet Coke head on cokehead). A Swatch dog is presumably someone who’s a slave to the latest fashions, such as Swatch watches at the time.

Swatch, which we had always thought was a blend of Swiss and watch, is actually a shortening of Second Watch, with the idea of “watches as casual, fun, and relatively disposable accessories” (although we remember Swatch watches as being terrifically expensive).


Heather Chandler: “Come on, it’ll be very. The note’ll give her shower nozzle masturbation material for weeks.”

We assume very here means impressive, good, or just all around awesome, and like mega, is an intensifier that gained its own meaning.

We don’t know if the phrase has anything to do with this Keri “is so very” lotion commercial, but the term very certainly makes us think of it.

X much

Heather Duke [to Veronica]: “Jealous much?”

There has been much written about X much. The OED describes the phrase as “with a preceding adjective, infinitive verb, or noun phrase, forming an elliptical comment or question.”

In other words, “Jealous much?” means “You’re really jealous, aren’t you?” Earlier in the film Heather McNamara says to Veronica, “Drool much?” meaning, “You’re drooling a lot over that guy, aren’t you?”

X much was also often used in the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which came out after Heathers:

Excuse much!
Smell of booze, much.
Morbid much?

Kevin Sullivan at Language and Humor found a citation that predates Heathers by over 10 years, from Saturday Night Live:

TODD (points at Lisa’s chest and mock laughs to a pretend audience): Underdeveloped much?

Want even more Heathers? Check out these stories in The Atlantic and Flavorwire, as well as this very entertaining oral history in, appropriately, Entertainment Weekly.

A Brief History of Yippee-Ki-Yay

Twenty-five years ago this week, the action movie Die Hard opened and Bruce Willis uttered that famous line.

But where does the yippee-ki-yay part come from? (If you’re more interested in the origins of the second half of that saying, check out this article from Slate.) Let’s break it down.

The yip part of yippee is old. It originated in the 15th century and meant “to cheep, as a young bird,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The more well-known meaning, to emit a high-pitched bark, came about around 1907, as per the OED, and gained the figurative meaning “to shout; to complain.”

Yip is imitative in origin but probably also influenced by the 16th century yelp, which has an even older meaning of “boasting, vainglorious speaking.” Yawp is even older, coming about in the 14th century, but now is primarily associated with Walt Whitman’s late 19th century “barbaric yawp.”

The yips are “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf.” As we mentioned in a Word Soup column back in November, some sources, including the OED, cite the first known use of the yips as 1962. However, we found a citation from 1941: “The match consumed three hours and thirty minutes, most of it because Cobb, the tingling-nerved old baseball Tiger, got the ‘yips‘ on many greens and would step back and line up his putts several times per putt.”

Yippee came about after yip. The earliest record of this exclamation of delight is from 1920 in Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Main Street: “She galloped down a block and as she jumped from a curb across a welter of slush, she gave a student ‘Yippee!’” Yippee beans, by the way, are amphetamines.

Yippie with an –ie refers to “a member of a group of politically radical hippies, active especially during the late 1960s.” The word, which originated in 1968, stands for Youth International Party and was modeled after hippie.

Now how about the whole phrase, yippee-ki-yay? It seems to be a play on “yippie yi yo kayah,” a refrain from a 1930s Bing Crosby song, I’m An Old Cowhand.

Do cowboys really say this? We’re guessing probably not, unless of course they’re single-handedly (and shoelessly) defeating a gang of bank robbers on Christmas Eve.

Celebrating ‘The Hobbit’: Journey Words, Unexpected or Not


Hobbits, by loresui

We here are Wordnik are quite excited that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens today. While we didn’t go as far as to don Hobbit ears and wizard caps and camp out in front of our favorite theater, we did gather 10 of our favorite journey words (not Journey words) right here.

booze cruise

“The head of the Massachusetts Port Authority resigned yesterday after it was learned that he went on a ‘booze cruise‘ paid for by his agency during which a woman bared her breasts.”

‘Booze Cruise’ Flap Ousts Board Head,” Toledo Blade, August 19, 1999

In American English, booze cruise refers to “a recreational trip on a cruise ship or boat usually tailored to young people, with the expectation of heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages.” This meaning originated around 1979, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The British English meaning, “a brief trip from Britain to France and/or Belgium in order to buy alcohol (or tobacco) in bulk quantities without paying excise duty,” is newer, coming about in the mid-1990s, says the OED.

The word booze comes from the Middle English bousen, “to drink to excess.”


“Such a jaunt was a rare treat to the child, for Isabella Spencer seldom allowed her to go from home with anybody but herself.”

L.M. Montgomery, Further Chronicles of Avonlea

A jaunt is “a ramble; an excursion; a short journey, especially one made for pleasure.” An earlier definition was “tiresome journey,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and earlier than that was the verb sense, “tire a horse by riding back and forth on it.” The origin is unknown, perhaps coming from “some obscure Old French word.”

Jaunty, “having a buoyant or self-confident air” or “crisp and dapper in appearance,” has a different origin, coming from the French gentil, “nice,” which in Old French means “noble.”


“Businesses are providing lavish junkets to little-known but highly-influential staff across swathes of the public sector, a Sunday Herald investigation can reveal.”

Paul Hutcheon and Tom Gordon, “Junket Scotland,” Herald Scotland, October 18, 2008

A junket is “a trip or tour,” especially “one taken by an official at public expense.” The word’s earliest meaning is “a basket made of rushes,” or a type of marsh plant; then, “curds mixed with cream, sweetened, and flavored,” and by extension, “any sweetmeat or delicacy.”

The meaning shifted in the 1520s, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, to “a feast or merrymaking; a convivial entertainment; a picnic.” The led to the sense of “pleasure trip,” and to the American English meaning, around 1886, of “tour by government official at public expense for no discernable public benefit.”

The word ultimately comes from the Latin iuncus, referring to the rush marsh plant. Iuncus also gives us junk, originally a nautical term meaning “old or condemned cable and cordage cut into small pieces,” perhaps named for its similarity in appearance to the reedy marsh plant.

milk run

“Tired of the same old ‘milk run‘ to work every morning? Try the ‘computer run.’”

Coming Next, The Morning Computer Run,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, July 23 1966

A milk run is “a routine trip involving stops at many places,” as well as “an uneventful mission, especially a military sortie completed without incident.”

The phrase, which originated around 1909, seems to come from older milk round (1865), which, according to the OED, is “a fixed route on which milk is regularly collected from farmers or delivered to customers; a milk delivery business covering such routes.” Milk round gained the figurative meaning of “a series of (typically annual) visits to universities and colleges made by business representatives to recruit graduates.”


“I just came in from a seventy-five mile ‘mush,’ but will start to-morrow for Chena. Nearly all our people are going or have gone. I have no dogs, but combine with two other fellows and pull our sleds.”

The Assembly Herald,” Presbyterian Magazine

Mush, which is “used to command a team of dogs to begin pulling or move faster,” also refers to the journey itself, “especially by dogsled.” Earlier was the verb sense, “to trudge or travel through the snow, while driving a dog-sled.” The word may come from the French marcher, “to walk, go.”


“After slipping among oozy piles and planks, stumbling up wet steps and encountering many salt difficulties, the passengers entered on their comfortless peregrination along the pier; where all the French vagabonds and English outlaws in the town (half the population) attended to prevent their recovery from bewilderment.”

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

A peregrination is “a traveling from one country or place to another; a roaming or wandering about in general; travel; pilgrimage.” The word ultimately comes from the Latin peregrinus, “from foreign parts, foreigner.” The first child born in Plymouth Colony was Peregrine White, where peregrine means “a foreign sojourner.”


“Even a captain in war must know the special virtues and vices of the enemy: which nation is ablest to make a sudden sally, which is stouter to entertain the shock in open field, which is subtlest of the contriving of an ambush.”

Clare Howard, English Travellers of the Renaissance

A sally is “a run or excursion; a trip or jaunt; a going out in general,” and comes from the Latin salīre, “to leap.”

Sally, the proper name, is an alteration of Sarah. Sally Ann is a nickname for the Salvation Army.


“I fell down eleven steps into your garden, knocked on the front door, knocked on the side door, talked to some one called ‘Ma,’ talked to some one called ‘Lydia,’ and learned that Miss Martha Brunhilde Monroe was out for a sashay.”

Kathleen Thompson Norris, Martie, The Unconquered

Sashay, which has the more common meaning of “to walk or proceed, especially in an easy or casual manner,” or “to strut or flounce in a showy manner,” also refers to “an excursion; an outing.” The word is what the Online Etymology Dictionary calls a “mangled Anglicization” (manglicization?) of the French chassé, “gliding step.”


“This election season, Jewish grandchildren all over the United States are schlepping to crucial swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama as part of The Great Schlep, a project of the Jewish Council for Education and Research.”

Nandini Balial, “Students ‘schlep’ To Sway Relatives To Obama,” CBS News, February 11, 2009

A schlep is “an arduous journey,” and is Yiddish in origin, coming from shlepn, “to drag, pull.” This sense of schlep entered English in the 1960s, says the OED.


“When the royal couple arrived for a ‘walkabout‘ in some town and split up the street — Charles heading to one side, Diana to the other — people on Charles’ side of the street would groan audibly: they had wanted HER and got stuck with HIM.”

Pat Morrison, “Sarah Palin and Princess Diana,” The Huffington Post, September 12, 2008

Walkabout has multiple meanings associated with a journey: in Australia, “a temporary return to traditional Aboriginal life, taken especially between periods of work or residence in white society and usually involving a period of travel through the bush”; “a walking trip”; and, chiefly British, “a public stroll taken by an important person, such as a monarch, among a group of people for greeting and conversation.”

This last sense is the newest, originating around 1970, according to the OED, while the other senses are attested to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

[Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by loresui]

Word Soup: Movie Words

With the Academy Awards just a few days away, we’ve had movies and movie words on the mind. What better way to celebrate than with this special Word Soup dedicated to film slang and lingo?

Abby Singer

“‘Abby Singer’ is director slang for the ‘next to the last shot,’ and takes its name from an assistant director, according to DGA Magazine.”

Joyce Wadler, “Where’s John Ford When You Need Him?” The New York Times, February 2, 2005

The Abby Singer was named for Abner E. “Abby” Singer, a production manager and assistant director. When asked how many shots were left at the end of the day, Singer would always answer, “This, and one more.”

Alan Smithee

“’Alan Smithee‘ is a phony name that turns up whenever a director is so embarrassed by what’s been done to his movie that he takes his name off it.”

John Hartl, “Credit Alan Smithee for ‘Hellraiser’ Fiasco,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 12, 1996

Alan Smithee – which some say is an anagram for “the alias men” – was first used for the 1969 film Death of a Gunfighter.


“A spot for Listerine, sold by Johnson & Johnson, urged viewers to ‘fight biofilm.’ That may have generated a lot of head-scratching in Hollywood, where a movie about a real person is called a ‘biopic.’”

Stuart Elliott, “Commercials at the Oscars Play It Safe and Play It Again,” The New York Times, February 28, 2011

A biopic, a blend of biography and picture, is a “a film or television biography, often with fictionalized episodes.” The word seems to have been coined by writers at Variety magazine.


“For every heroine in the canon of blaxploitation movies — often filmed with her breasts popping out if her shirt at random intervals for no good reason at all — Pam Grier redeems every shirtless character she ever played in this film about a double-cross gone awry.”

Jim Izrael, “Girls, Guns and Grudges,” NPR: Tell Me More, August 28, 2011

Blaxploitation films are “a genre of American film of the 1970s featuring African-American actors in lead roles and often having antiestablishment plots, frequently criticized for stereotypical characterization and glorification of violence.” Blaxploitation is a blend of black and exploitation.


“The influence of Bollywood suffuses every scene of ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ as well as Hollywood-financed diversions as various as ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.’”

Michael Phillips, “Bollywood hybrid fails to fly,” Chicago Tribune, January 16, 2009

Bollywood refers to “the Indian film industry located in Mumbai,” and is a blend Bombay, the former name of Mumbai, and Hollywood. The word Bollywood, which may have originated in the 1970s, was inspired by an earlier blend, Tollywood, “referring to the Bengali film industry based in Tollygunge,” and dating back to 1932.

box office poison

“Nation-wide attention was directed to a statement signed by the Independent Theater Owners’ Association, which came right out in print and characterized Mae West, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Kay Francis and Marlene Diectrich ‘as box office poison.’”

Paul Harrison, “‘Box Office Poison’ Blast Fails to Disturb Movie Moguls Trying to Cut Stars’ Salaries,” The Pittsburgh Press, May 10, 1938

The infamous “box office poison” letter was written by Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theater Owners’ Association. Brandt tempered his statement by saying that the actors’ “dramatic ability is unquestioned but [their] box-office draw is nil.”

chew the scenery

“Combs also has a ball as over-the-top Sergio, not so much chewing the scenery as swallowing it whole.”

Martin Morrow, “Review: Get Him to the Greek,” CBC News, June 4, 2010

To chew the scenery means to overact. According to World Wide Words, the phrase is sometimes meant as a compliment, “suggesting an actor who is energetic and spirited,” and may have originated around 1891, referring first to stage actors, “which is only reasonable. . .since scenery that is close enough to you that you can chew on it, even figuratively, is usually found only on the stage.”

chick flick

“At the very least, the film [The Devil Wears Prada] is laboriously designed as a chick flick in which the male species is clearly subordinated to the female.”

The Devil Is a Dominatrix, But Streep’s No Real Surprise,” New York Observer, July 17, 2006

A chick flick is “usually about romances, which is popular with females and comparatively unpopular with males.” Chick is slang for a girl or young woman, and first recorded in 1927, while flick is slang for a movie, first attested from 1926 as a back formation of flicker, from the flickering appearance of film at the time.

The term chick flick seems to have originated in the early 1990s, referring to films such as Thelma & Louise and Sleepless in Seattle.


“In the 1970s and 1980s, a blizzard of ‘chopsocky’ TV shows and films, such as the 1982 Jet Li film ‘Shaolin Temple,’ helped to sear the Buddhist legends into the popular imagination, both in China and abroad.”

Geoffrey A. Fowlers and Juliet Ye, “Kung Fu Monks Don’t Get a Kick Out of Fighting,” The Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2007

Chopsocky refers to “a genre of exaggerated martial arts films made primarily in Hong Kong and Taiwan during the 1960s and 1970s.” The term was coined by writer David J. Fox at Variety magazine, and may be a blend of chop suey, “a mixed dish served in Chinese restaurants in New York and elsewhere, as a Chinese dish (but apparently not known in China),” and sock, “to hit hard.”

cowboy shot

“If a ‘D.P’ – that’s director of photography – calls for ‘a cowboy shot,’ he may not necessarily be working on a Western. ‘When cowboys duel on a Western street, where do they go for their guns? Their holsters. So you have to photograph down almost to their knees. That’s why we call it a cowboy shot,’ he says.”

Bob Thomas, “Sound stage slang,” Sun Journal, October 31, 2005

In Europe, a cowboy shot is known as a plán americain or plano americano.

Dogme 95

“Almost a decade ago, Danish director Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which produced an ‘indisputable set of rules’ for filmmakers called ‘The Vow of Chastity.’ Among its ten commandments: ‘Shooting must be done on location’; ‘The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa’; ‘The camera must be hand-held’; ‘Special lighting is not acceptable.’”

Christopher Orr, “The Move Review: ‘Dogville,’The Atlantic, August 24, 2004

Dogme 95 was founded in 1995. Dogme is the Danish word for dogma, “authoritative teaching or doctrine; a system of established principles or tenets.”

fake Shemp

“As well as having Campbell in the lead, this particular effort was written, directed and produced by one Josh Becker who had served as second unit lighting technician and sound man on The Evil Dead and who would go an to collaborate with Raimi and Tapert on a number of occasions. He was a ‘fake shemp’ in Evil Dead II, for example, whilst he has also directed one of the Hercules pilot movies and an episode of Xena.”

Anthony Nield, “The Evil Dead,” The Digital Fix, October 5, 2005

Fake Shemp is “the term for someone who appears in a film under heavy make-up, filmed from the back, or perhaps only showing an arm or a foot.” The term was named for The Three Stooges’ Shemp Howard, who died suddenly. Shemp’s stand-in was used “appearing only from behind or with an object obscuring his face.”


Grindhouses, which got their name from the bump-and-grind stripteases they featured in their previous life as burlesque houses, were seedy, rundown movie theatres in the 1970s where low-budget exploitation films titillated undiscriminating audiences with sex and violence.”

Warren Clements, “Here’s to the grindhouse – in all its nasty, loopy glory,” The Globe and Mail, October 7, 2010

The advent in the 1980s of home video and cable TV threatened to make grindhouses obsolete.

it girl

“Clara Bow, still showing the flash of beauty she displayed as the ‘It Girl’ of Hollywood’s flaming past, emerged from self-imposed obscurity Monday to bury her husband of 30 years, Lieut. Gov. Rex Bell of Nevada.”

“Clara Bow, ‘It Girl’ of Movies, Beautiful at Husband’s Funeral,” St. Joseph Gazette, July 10, 1962

It girl is “a term for a young woman who possesses the quality ‘It’,” or an attractive quality difficult to describe or express. The term was coined either by Rudyard Kipling around 1904 or British novelist and scripwriter, Elinor Glyn, in her 1927 film It, which starred Clara Bow, who afterward became known as the It Girl.


“Arguably the greatest film of the so-called J-horror wave of the late ’90s and early 2000s, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Pulse’ brought the current of apocalyptic dread that runs through Japanese pop culture into the Internet age with a vengeance.”

Andrew O’Hehir, “Japan’s cinema of disaster, from Godzilla to J-horror,” Salon, March 15, 2011

J-horror refers to the genre of Japanese horror films that tend “to focus on psychological horror and tension building.” Although such films gained popularity in the 1990s, the term seems to have originated in the early 2000s. The earliest citation we found was from The New York Times: “[Director Hideo Nakata] is credited as one of the creators of a new, scarier, psychological horror genre known as J-horror, with less splatter and a lot more dread.”

J-horror may be a play on an earlier term, J-pop, coined in the 1990s and referring to popular, non-traditional, Japanese music.

Kubrick stare

“[The Shining] also has what Roger Ebert describes as The Kubrick Stare, with a character – in this case Torrance – staring into camera as he goes mad, with his head down and his eyes looking up.”

James White, “7 Respected Directors Who Did Horror,” Total Film, July 3, 2009

The Kubrick stare refers to director Stanley Kubrick. In Vincent LoBrutto’s 1999 biography of Kubrick, the stare is referred to as the Kubrick crazy stare. Kubrick’s cinematographer Douglas Milsome said that in Full Metal Jacket, Vincent D’Onofrio “flashes what people are now referring to as the ‘Kubrick crazy stare.’ Stanley has a stare like that which is very penetrating and frightens the hell out of you sometimes.”


“But the microfilm that the bad guys are smuggling out of the country — that’s just what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin, the pretense for the movie, the silly excuse upon which he pinned his real story: a man is mistaken for another man and nearly murdered because of this mistake.”

The Mother of All Horror Films,” Newsweek, January 6, 2010

World Wide Words says the first recorded usage of MacGuffin was by Alfred Hitchcock in 1939, who described it as “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story.” However, the origin of the term is obscure.

magical Negro

“Perhaps it’s time for the ‘magical negro’ to retire. Just in recent years, this mythical figure has come to the aid of a number of cinema’s troubled whites: a golfer (The Legend of Bagger Vance), a shallow executive (The Family Man), an uptight attorney (Bringing Down the House), and The One (The Matrix-es).”

Tricia Olszewski, “Film Review: Black Snake Moan,” Washington City Paper, March 2, 2007

The term magical Negro was coined by director Spike Lee in a 2001 speech at Washington State University, in which he expressed disgust with “a recent trend toward characters he called ‘the super-duper, magical Negro,'” characters who “have amazing powers that benefit white people, but not blacks,” similar to “the age-old image of the slave who loves slavery.”

manic pixie dream girl

“Who’s just as cute as a button? Who’s the most deliciously delirious young woman, always up to her false eyelashes in madcap romps? It’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, of course.”

Neda Ulaby, “Manic Pixie Dream Girls: A Cinematic Scourge?” NPR, October 9, 2008

The term manic pixie dream girl was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007 regarding Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film Elizabethtown, “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

martini shot

“I stuck around after even after I wrapped to see the martini shot of the entire show. I could feel director Jack Bender’s resistance to call ‘print’ on that last take. In fact I’m pretty sure he asked for one more take to delay the inevitable.”

Eric Ditzian, “’Lost’ Star Jorge Garcia Pens Farewell To The Island,”, March 21, 2010

A martini shot refers to the last shot of the day. According to Dave Knox, author of Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: An Insider’s Guide to Film Slang, “The last [shot] is a martini because the next shot is out of glass.”


“The ‘mockbuster’ is a film based on the story of a big blockbuster movie, which is cheaper, shorter and is usually released straight-to-DVD long before the original is anywhere close to coming out in the shops.”

Fiona Pryor, “Spoofing the big film blockbuster,” BBC News, May 17, 2010

Mockbuster is a blend of mock and blockbuster, a film “that sustains widespread popularity and achieves enormous sales.” It’s also known as a knockbuster, a blend of knockoff, an unauthorized imitation, often poorly-made, and blockbuster.


“What Reiner did not foresee was that in its 25-year existence, ‘Spinal Tap’ has influenced both the way we tell stories—Michael Schur, creator of ‘The Office,’ recently said the mockumentary is his preferred storytelling format—and the way we understand them.”

Jennie Yabroff, “The Real Spinal Tap,” Newsweek, April 10, 2009

Mockumentary is a blend of mock and documentary. As for first use, while the OED notes appearances of the word in 1965, the word may have gained popularity with the 1984 film, This is Spinal Tap.

nuke the fridge

“The story isn’t going to set the world on fire, but ‘Tintin’ is still a hell of a lot more entertaining than 2008′s ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ a movie so miscalculated it inspired a new variation on ‘jumping the shark.’ Now the moment when franchises officially run out of good ideas, they ‘nuke the fridge.’”

Matt Singer, “Indiana Jones and the razor-sharp criticism,”, December 26, 2011

The term nuke the fridge was coined in 2008 “in the wake of ‘Indiana Jones the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,’ in which Indy survives an atomic bomb blast by hiding in a refrigerator.”


“The craggy, mellowing Eastwood directs himself admirably in this scenic, first-class oater [The Unforgiven], which strikes an ideal balance between character piece and action film as it portrays a rapidly changing way of life.”

John Farr, “The Hard-Won Legacy of Gene Hackman,” The Huffington Post, March 21, 2010

An oater is “a movie about frontier or cowboy life; a western,” and is named for “the prominence of horses, known for their taste for oats, in such films.” The term originated in 1946. See also horse opera.


“The golden guy known to the world as the Oscar, the real star of Sunday’s Academy Awards, has become a Hollywood icon over the past 82 years, but the origin of his name has been lost in time.”

Oscar: Hollywood’s golden mystery man,” The Independent, March 2, 2010

The Oscar is “a statuette awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” first awarded in 1929, and not named Oscar till the early 1930s. According to Andy Bowers, there are multiple claims to the origin, including actress Bette Davis remarking on the resemblance between the statue’s behind and her first husband’s, Harman Oscar Nelson; columnist Sidney Skolsky referring to an old vaudeville line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?”; and Academy librarian Maragret Herrick noting the small gold man bore a resemblance to her uncle Oscar.

quota quickies

“The standard histories maintain that there wasn’t much worth seeing [in prewar British cinema]: this was, after all, the era of the ‘quota quickie,’ cheap little movies made solely to fulfill the demands of the 1927 Cinematographic Film Act, which required that 5 percent of the movies on British screens actually be British.”

Dave Kehr, “New DVDs: Early British Cinema,” The New York Times, September 29, 2008

Quota quickies may be likened to B-movies, low budget movies with poor production values.


“Most romcoms attempting that delay tactic instead give us screaming matches, ridiculous misunderstandings and other exasperating nonsense that bring us to the brink of loathing.”

Jennie Punter, “Just Wright: The right mix for a slamdunk romcom,”  The Globe and Mail, May 14, 2010

Romcom is a blend of romantic comedy, “films with light-hearted, humorous plotlines, centered on romantic ideals such as that true love is able to surmount most obstacles.” The term romcom seems to have originated in the late 1990s regarding films such as You’ve Got Mail and One Fine Day.


“The cinema’s biggest hits were underground classics such as Thundercrack and Cafe Flesh; John Waters’s 70s trash trilogy Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living; and the work of sexploitation king Russ Meyer.”

Tony Paley, “Cinema of sin: London’s old Scala picturehouse,” The Guardian, July 31, 2011

Sexploitation is a portmanteau of sex and exploitation, and refers to “exploitative use of explicit sexual material in movies.” It attests to 1942.

spaghetti western

“Sergio Leone, the Italian director who gave class to the term ‘spaghetti western,’ has made some weird movies in his day but nothing to match ‘Once Upon a Time in America,’ a lazily haullucinatory epic that means to encapsulate approximately 50 years of American social history into a single film.”

Vincent Canby, “Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in America,” The New York Times, June 1, 1984

A spaghetti western is a  “a low-budget Western movie produced by a European (especially an Italian) film company.” The term originated in 1969.

Spielberg face, the

“‘Nowadays, it seems you can’t have a spectacular special effects action sequence without a Spielberg face to cue you to be in awe,’ Mr. Lee writes.”

Melena Ryzik, “Staring in Awe? It’s ‘the Spielberg Face,'” The New York Times, December 19, 2011

The Spielberg face, which refers to director Steven Spielberg, was coined last year by Kevin B. Lee who compiled a video essay of these close-up shots of actors with “eyes open, staring in wordless wonder in a moment where time stands still,” a look that “has come to be shorthand for a cinematic discovery on the part of the characters and the audience.”

Wilhelm scream

“A single scream, recorded for the 1951 film ‘Distant Drums,’ has made its way into dozens of films, games and TV shows. Afficianados call it the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ and have cataloged many of the films in which it appeared, from Hercules to Pirates of the Caribbean, The X-Files to the short ‘Golden Dreams’ film at Disney California Adventure.”

Cory Doctorow, “Wilhelm Scream – Hollywood’s favorite scream,” Boing Boing, November 29, 2006

The Wilhelm scream was created by sound designer Ben Burtt in 1977, “which he called ‘Wilhelm’ after the character that let out the scream in ‘Charge at Feather River.’”


“Through martial arts practice the Wuxia hero becomes, in effect, superhuman. Lightning-fast reflexes allow for the ‘zhao’ fighting style, turning everyday objects into lethal weapons, whether thrown or wielded. Opponents can be paralysed with a single accurate blow or avoided by scaling walls or through the power of flight.”

House of Flying Daggers,” Spiked, December 23, 2004

Wuxia, which is Chinese in origin, also refers to literature, Chinese opera, and video games. Wu translates as “martial, military, armed,” while xia translates as “honorable, chivalrous, hero.”

This list is far from complete! What are some of your favorite movie words?

Attention all muggles and squibs!

Unless you’ve been locked up in Azkaban all summer, you’ll know that the very last Harry Potter movie opens today.  We at Wordnik love the JK Rowling series, and not just because of the magic and butterbeer.

“The Harry Potter books,” writes Jessy Randall in this essay from VERBATIM, “are not just good literature but a treasury of wordplay and invention,” and we couldn’t agree more.

There are the Latin-based spells. Reducio, which reduces the size of an object, notes Randall, comes from the Latin reducere (re- “back” + ducere “bring, lead”).  Some more examples from Randall:

Reparo! (Latin reparare) repairs. Riddikulus! (Latin ridiculus) turns an enemy— usually a Boggart—into something ridiculous or laughable. Lumos! (Latin lumen, ‘light’) causes illumination. Impedimenta! (Latin impedimentum) impedes or slows the enemy. Sonorus! (Latin sonor, ‘sound;’ English sonorous) causes one’s wand to become a microphone. Stupefy! (Latin stupefacere, stupere, ‘to be stunned’) stupefies the enemy, causing confusion. Expelliarmus! (Latin expellere, ‘to drive out’) expels your opponent’s wand from his or her hand.

Many of Rowling’s terms are also common words with other meanings. While a muggle is known in the Potterverse as “a person who has no magical abilities,” it also once meant “a contest between drinkers to decide which of them can drink the most,” and also referred to a marijuana cigarette, hot chocolate, and “to be restless; to remove, deface or destroy a geocache.” A squib is the unmagical offspring of magical parents but also “a small firework that is intended to spew sparks rather than explode; a short piece of writty writing; an unimportant, paltry, or mean-spirited person.”

Characters’ names are often also common words.  A dumbledore is a bumblebee.  Snape is a ship-building term that means “to bevel the end of (a timber or plank) so that it will fit accurately upon an inclined surface.” Hagrid is the past participle of hagride, which means “to harass or torment by dread or nightmares.”  Skeeter is a term for an annoying pest, and not just Rita Skeeter, blood-sucking journalist.  Mundungus is “waste animal product” or “poor-quality tobacco with a foul, rancid, or putrid smell,” a good name for a sneaky thief.

If you’re interested in all the words of Harry Potter, you’re in luck: we have Potterlists here, and here, and here, and here.  If you love all things magical, check out It’s Magic! and -Mancy, which list different kinds of -mency and -mancy words, or divinations. This one is about extrasensory individuals, including sibyl, “an old woman professing to be a prophetess or fortune-teller; a sorceress,” and the namesake of Sybill Trelawney, Hogwarts’ professor of divination. Also don’t forget spells, spellcasters, and amulets.

Whatever your fancy, bring your wands and remember, in the words of Hermione Granger, it’s wingardium levi-O-sa!

[Photo: In Flex We Trust]