- 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.
- 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.
- 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.'"
- 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.
- Siren song. When we talk about women luring us in through their sweet voices, we talk about their siren song.
Which, of course, is a reference to the sirens of Greek mythology, most notably mentioned in Homer's "Odyssey".
- 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.
- 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.
- 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".
- I'd sell my soul to the Devil. 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.
- Dead as (deader than) a doornail I’m sure you’ve heard it said: “I don’t know why they say door nail, wouldn’t a coffin nail be deader?” The phrase means that something is unequivocally dead (either actually without life or figuratively dead—like a broken appliance). An early use of the phrase appears in the 14th century English poem Piers Plowman, the English translation of a 13th century French poem Guillaume de Palerme, and it may have appeared in another work called Parliament of the Three Ages. Here’s line 65 from that anonymous 14th century poem:
Dede als a dore-nayle doun was he fallen;