Lexicon Valley

This Word Is Toast: Slang From Cult Films

Just hanging with the cast of Heathers: This 1988 film provides an early citation for this sense of hang.

Courtesy of New World Pictures

Cult films are slippery customers. One person’s cult film is another’s mainstream hit, and both would probably be prepared to fight to the death to defend their opinion. For some, a film can only be described as “cult” if just a handful of people have seen it. For others, it is a film that did not achieve mainstream success when it was first released, but gradually built up a significant following by word of mouth. Whatever you think, cult films are a vital part of our culture, and thus our language, so let’s zoom in on some films that have been generally accepted as “cult classics” that have been quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary.


Heathers (1988)

Heather Chandler: You wanted to become a member of the most powerful clique in the school. If I wasn’t already the head of it, I’d want the same thing.
Veronica: I’m sorry? What are you oozing about?


Heathers is a brilliantly quotable cult film, but did you know it is also one of the most frequently cited films in the OED, with Daniel Waters’ script providing evidence for words or senses in 11 quotations?*

The film supplies evidence for perfectohang (as in to pass time idly or aimlessly), righteous (a synonym for excellent, cool), much (“God Veronica, drool much?”), and I’m sorry (as in the quotation above, where it is used interrogatively, requesting the repetition of words that the speaker failed to hear or understand, or finds hard to believe). Perhaps saving the best for last, the film also provides evidence for cow tipping, which refers to the activity of pushing over a sleeping cow. Do not try this at home kids.


Pulp Fiction (1994)

I ain’t through with you by a damn sight. I’m gonna git Medieval on your ass.


Pulp Fiction, the first independent film to gross more than $200 million, is another hugely quotable film that provides a number of citations in the OED.

Quentin Tarantino’s script provides evidence for words including overpricelittle man, and gangsta, and phrases including to be caught with one’s pants down meaning “to be caught off guard” and to get medieval meaning “to use violence or extreme measures on.” Interestingly, it is not just the dialogue, but stage directions within the script text that are used in citations. One direction reads: “Vincent Vega looks really cool behind the wheel of a 1964 cherry-red Chevy Malibu convertible. … The background is a colorful process shot,” and provides evidence in the OED for process shot, meaning a shot made using process projection.


Withnail and I (1987)

Withnail: What are you gonna do with those? 
Danny: The joint I’m about to roll requires a craftsman. It can utilise up to twelve skins. It is called a Camberwell carrot.

Withnail and I falls under the classic “sleeper hit” definition of a cult film. It opened in cinemas in 1987, received some good reviews, and then disappeared from screens. But over the years it became a word-of-mouth classic, thanks to VHS and DVD sales, and now it is often screened as a “quote along” event.


In terms of its linguistic legacy, two quotations from Bruce Robinson’s script feature in the OED. It is featured in the entry for black, in the section where objects are prefixed, by way of comparison: “A jade streak in his hair and night-black shades.” And the notorious “Camberwell carrot” quotation above provides evidence for skin, meaning cigarette paper.


Ghostbusters (1984)

This chick is toast.

While Ghostbusters may be considered as pushing the “cult” definition a bit too much, having had neither limited exposure nor limited commercial success, it’s just too difficult to resist including this excellent quote that found its way into the OED. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’ script actually reads:  “Okay. That’s it! I’m gonna turn this guy into toast.”* But thanks to some ad-libbing from Bill Murray—“This chick is toast”—it was instead the proleptic form which gained currency. And if a film becomes considered cult because of the passion of its fans, then Ghostbusters can certainly be said to have a cult following.


Blade Runner (1982)*

The big religious boys said that replicants, no matter how human, were objects, only God could make people.


On first release Blade Runner received polarized reviews from the critics, and had relatively low ticket sales in the U.S. Despite this it did not take long for the film to attain cult classic status. It was actually one of the first films to be released on DVD, in Japan in 1996, perhaps in part because the film’s ambiguity and complexity rewards repeat viewings.

Though based on the Philip K. Dick book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it is the film rather than the book that provides the OED’s first recorded evidence for the word replicant. The book uses the word android, or andy.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

David and Nigel, they’re like poets y’know, like Shelley and Byron, or people like that. They’re two distinct types of visionaries—it’s like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water, in a sense.


This Is Spinal Tap, as with many of the films on this list, had only modest success on first release, but has built up a massive cult following in the last 30 years. Unfortunately the quote above does not actually appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was just included as a gift to you. The film does however find its place in the OED under the entry for mockumentarywhere it is referenced in a 1987 article in the Washington Post.


So next time you’re watching your favorite film, why not turn the volume up to 11 and quote along, happy in the knowledge that even if it didn’t win any Oscars, what better prize is there than being remembered forever in the Oxford English Dictionary?

A version of this post appeared on the Oxford Dictionaries blog

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*Correction, Dec. 8, 2014: This post originally misidentified the screenwriter of Heathers, Daniel Waters, as David Waters. Dan Aykroyd’s last name was also misspelled, and the release date of Blade Runner was misstated; it came out in 1982, not 1980.