General English

Idiom of “catch-phrase”

A catch-phrase tends to have a more ephemeral resonance than an idiom. It is a fixed phrase which has gained media popularity and thus spreads into the wider culture. It is often based on a memorable jingle, slogan, stock response or quotation from an advertiser, a politician or an entertainer. Sometimes a catch-phrase is a complete sentence. Often it attains a range of resonances far beyond the intentions of its originator. Included in this dictionary is a selection of only those catch-phrases which seemed to double well as idiomatic expressions. Examples of catch-phrases which tend in this direction are:

From politics
John Major’s Back to basics (1993) and Margaret Thatcher’s You turn if you want to: The lady’s not for turning (1980) may not have the stuff of enduring quotations, but both still have a certain resonance many years on. Winston Churchill has left many catch-phrases echoing in the language cupboard, including frequent references to the broad sunlit uplands, probably his equivalent of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; as well as the rousing blood, sweat and tears and not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning. Whether we use the entire sentence or only the first half, George Bush Senior’s Read my lips, no new taxes (1988) is still good for the odd, hollowish laugh, and we still use The buck stops here (Harry S Truman, died 1972), Speak softly and carry a big stick (Theodore Roosevelt, died 1919) and The last, best hope on earth (Abraham Lincoln, died 1865).

From the Bible, proverbs, literature and films
Biblical echoes permeate the language, from A land of milk and honey (Exodus iii.8) to The poor are always with us (Matthew xxvi.11). Book and film titles are fertile sources of catch-phrases, from Life is just a bowl of cherries (song, 1931), Life begins at forty (book, 1932) and Miss Lonelyhearts (book, 1933) to All quiet on the western front (film and book, 1930), A walk on the wild side (film, 1962), Diamonds are forever (film and book, 1956) and The silence of the lambs (book 1988, film 1991). Certain fictional expressions have also caught on in the wider language, from Conan Doyle’s Elementary, my dear Watson (1894) and Dickens’s Never say die (1833) to Raymond Chandler’s Down these mean streets (a man must go) (1950) and George Orwell’s Big Brother (is watching you) (1948).

From advertising slogans and mottoes
From The mint with the hole (Polo) to Beanz meanz Heinz, from Put a tiger in your tank (Esso), Gotta lotta bottle (Milk Marketing), and The beer that made Milwaukee famous (Schlitz), right back to Every picture tells a story (Sloan’s Backache and Kidney Pills) and The customer is always right (Selfridges), these expressions tend to stick in our minds, just as the advertisers intended; and to be used in our speech, sometimes in emended form. They need not necessarily be commercial in origin, as Be prepared (Boy Scouts’ motto), Better red than dead (nuclear disarmament), Black is beautiful (US Black civil rights) and Flower power (hippy slogan) – among many – remind us.

From radio and TV
Kenneth Horne’s Read any good books lately? (Much Binding in the Marsh, 1940s) and I don’t mind if I do (Tommy Handley, ITMA, 1940s) have had a good innings, as have Beautiful downtown Burbank, Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls, What you see is what you get and You bet your sweet bippy (all Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, 1967–1973); Know what I mean? Say no more! And now for something completely different (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, 1969–1974); and What do you think of it so far? There’s no answer to that and Short, fat hairy legs (Morecambe and Wise Show, 1970s).

Some catch-phrases end up as clichés, which may mean they have come to the end of their productive existence, and are ready for replacement by something more vital and up to the minute. It’s happening even as we speak (catch-phrase for ‘right now’). Watch this space, as the phrase-collectors might say.