10 Ways Television Has Changed the Way We Talk

CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow ended all of his new broadcasts with "Good luck, and good night."
CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow ended all of his new broadcasts with "Good luck, and good night."
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You can eat my shorts or talk to my hand. But whatever you do, thank you for your support. The balcony is closed, so don't squeeze the Charmin. Still, I would like to buy a vowel, and that's all folks. Good night, and good luck.

Since the average American watches approximately 153 hours of TV every month, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some of what is said on TV has crept into our language [source: Nielson]. Admit it: How many times did you say "yada, yada, yada" when "Seinfeld" was all the rage?

It's no secret that TV has had a great influence on popular culture. TV often sets trends in fashion, music and in language. Sometimes TV buzzwords or catchphrases even make it into the dictionary. For example, "d'oh," Homer Simpson's smack-in-the-head lament, is now part of the Oxford English Dictionary. According to the editors, doh (spelled without the apostrophe) means "expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish" [source: Libaw].

The language of TV has even wormed its way into our political discourse. When Walter Mondale battled Gary Hart for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, he used a slogan from a Wendy's commercial to describe Hart's policies as lacking depth. "Where's the beef?" Mondale asked [source: Time].

How language changes and moves from place to place is very complex. Most language migrates from cities, which are cultural focal points, to rural areas. In some cases, though, it is the reverse. Most people think that television and other forms of media are homogenizing the English language. However, while TV shows have contributed some words and expressions to the vocabulary, most people want to speak just like their friends [source: Wolfram].

Studies show that small children who watch certain TV programs have higher vocabularies and more expressive language than children who don't watch the same programs. However, overall, TV viewing has been linked to reduced vocabulary [source: PBS].

Go to the next page and tune in on some of the ways television has influenced the way we speak.

Coarse Language

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is no flower. In 2009, Channel 4 in Great Britain was urged to fire the popular reality TV show star after he swore 243 times in one episode of "Ramsay's Great British Nightmare." The chef's first f-bomb exploded just 31 seconds into the program. By the end of the 103-minute show, Ramsay had tossed 187 f-grenades [source: Kelly].

Back in the day, television was a bastion of civil language. No one, certainly not John-Boy Walton, not even Archie Bunker, swore. Oh sure, there were a few "damns" and "hells," but nothing major. Civil language on TV has gone the way of the vacuum tube. A poll of more than 800 people in Great Britain found most believed there was more swearing on TV than 10 years ago. Seventy-six percent of those who responded to the Daily Mail's survey said swearing on TV was having a negative impact on young people, while 68 percent felt that bad language "led directly" to young people using foul language [source: Lyle]


When a baseball player hits a home run, the announcers yell "it's back, back, back, gone." ESPN personality Stuart Scott yells "boo-yah!" and there's more than a little March madness when Dick Vitale says "it's awesome, baby!" Jargon, the language used by a specific group or profession, is a mainstay on television regardless of whether anyone else understands what is being said. Shows like "ER" and "Law & Order" have even increased our understanding of some of the jargon used in the medical and legal professions.

But TV sports announcers, anchors and reporters are the ones that use jargon the most. According to a study by the Missouri School of Journalism, sports jargon, such as the phrases often heard on ESPN, is finding its way into newspapers and magazines. The study shows that sports writers often use ESPN "sports speak" instead of traditional language in their reporting [source: Feely].

Speech Patterns and Dialects

Does TV make people sound the same? Some people argue that television, along with other media, is diluting regional speech patterns. While television does play a role in how certain words and expressions become part of our lexicon, when it comes to speech patterns, some experts say the media has no effect whatsoever. For example, inner-city African Americans use dialects and accents that are becoming less like the standard accents they hear on television [source: PBS].

But dialects on TV do have an impact. Remember "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" of the 1960s? Boris and Natasha were the ultimate cold warriors, even if they were cartoon characters. Everyone knew they were sinister. How could you tell? Just listen to their heavy Eastern European dialects. Villains on televisions shows, especially animated children's TV, mostly speak with a foreign dialect [source: Dobrow and Gidney].

In China, the government is removing local dialects from television to promote the use of Mandarin. China has more than 80 dialects and languages [source: Wei].

Use of Catch Phrases
You don't have to be a fan of Donald Trump to know that "you're fired!" is a tagline from his reality show "The Apprentice."
You don't have to be a fan of Donald Trump to know that "you're fired!" is a tagline from his reality show "The Apprentice."
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

When words fail us, there's always a TV catch phrase. Whatever (or is it "whatev-ah?") the phrase, you don't have to watch a lot of television to understand its meaning. People use TV catch phrases and buzzwords all the time. We hear them at work, at church and, of course, on television. Their sources are usually obvious.

Politician Tim Pawlenty was talking to a group of Republicans in Des Moines, Iowa in early in 2011 when he said "we should tell President Obama...'You're fired.'" You don't have to be a fan of Donald Trump to know that "you're fired!" is a tagline from his reality show "The Apprentice" [source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer].

For decades, catch phrases have shaped our language. They are billboards that advertise what has captured our imagination at a specific point in time. Catch phases often appear in books, newspaper articles and in other media. They're also spread by word of mouth. Researchers say that using quotes from TV or movies in every day conversation is like telling a joke. We do it to bond with others, to make people laugh and to make us feel good about ourselves [source: Pawlowski].

Political Correctness

No one would consider Archie Bunker a poster boy for political correctness. Archie was a working-class stiff who held bigoted and conservative views of the world. He offended almost everybody he met. Archie gave each minority group a name, and blasted everyone who did not share his views. Yet, "All in the Family" was one of television's most watched and influential shows in history. The show did not shy away from controversial social issues [source: Museum of Broadcast Communication].

Television has often set the agenda over what is politically correct to say. When country music's Dixie Chicks blasted President George W. Bush in 2003 for going to war in Iraq, conservative pundits Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly called the group's remarks "treasonous," a view shared by many others [source: Rodriguez].

Comedian Bill Maher got into hot water after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. On his show "Politically Incorrect," Maher suggested the hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon were not cowards. "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building is not cowardly," he said. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer responded by saying "people have to watch what they say and watch what they do." Maher's show was cancelled soon after [source: Rodriguez].

Yet, some shows, such as "South Park," "The Sopranos" and "Family Guy," push the limits of political correctness. All three readily make use of racial, sexual and religious stereotypes.

You can thank Ashton Kutcher and MTV for adding the word "punk'd" to our vocabulary.
You can thank Ashton Kutcher and MTV for adding the word "punk'd" to our vocabulary.
L. Cohen/Getty Images

What's a "vajayjay?" If you were watching "Grey's Anatomy" in 2006, you know a vajayjay is slang for vagina. Although the line was conceived by an executive producer who wanted the script to include fewer mentions of vagina, it had the unintended consequence of launching the vajayjay into ordinary speech [source: Rosenbloom].

Jimmy Kimmel used it. Oprah says it all the time. The word appeared in Salon and the Huffington Post. "Vajayjay" also turned up in Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary. Why did the word become so popular? Linguists say that there seemed to be a need for a less offensive and clinical word to describe the female vagina [source: Rosenbloom].

Other slang words have found their way into our collective language. Used as a verb, "MacGyver," means to solve a problem in a creative way, much like the hero on the show. "Awse" comes to us from "30 Rock." It means awesome [source: Los Angeles Times]. "Punk'd" means to be fooled. The name comes from the Ashton Kutcher show "Punk'd" that ran on MTV from 2003 to 2007.

Improved Vocabulary

Yes, the Boob Tube can improve a person's vocabulary. In 2010, Dictionary.com selected eight shows that can expand a person's vocabulary. "The Daily Show with John Stewart" for example, has many guests that talk about complicated topics. "Sesame Street," of course is part of the list. HBO's vampire series, "True Blood," is packed with medical, political, mythological and historical references. The science-fiction series "Fringe" also uses many scientific terms [source: Los Angeles Times].


Whether it's WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) or GTL (gym, tan, laundry), television has given popular culture many acronyms. Most civilians didn't know what a M*A*S*H unit was until Hawkeye and Trapper John came along. A few years ago, crime scene investigators were, well, crime scene investigators. Today, they're CSIs. The Country Music Awards are now the CMAs. "Sex and the City" was so popular that people began referring to it as SATC. In the world of "Jersey Shore," MIA stands for Miami; MVP means Mike, Vinny, Pauly; and DTS stands for down to snuggle. Of course you can't do anything before you GTL.

Sexist Language

For decades, television has been the domain of white males, and women are sometime unfairly stereotyped [source: Gebhardt and Harless]. For example, during a segment of "Fox and Friends," the male host called women politicians irrational; while on another Fox News segment titled "Mom Caves," the male host said "didn't men give you the kitchen?" [source: Workforce of Women].

Experts say the use of sexist language in television newscasts classifies women as immature, frivolous and incompetent. One study found that when a news story referred to a woman as a "girl," males rated that story higher than if the anchor referred to the female as a "woman." However, the opposite was true for female test subjects, who gave the story a high rating when the female was referred to as a "woman" [source: Gebhardt and Harless].

Sexist language is mostly apparent during televised sporting events. One study in Los Angeles found that sportscasters referred to women athletes 31 times by their first name, compared with 19 times for the men. The sportscasters never referred to white male players by their first name, only black male players [source: LA 84 Foundation].

The study also found that baseball telecasts featured crowd shots of women in bikinis. The implication here is that televised sports events have sexist overtones in pictures and in language. Women were presented "humorously "as sexual objects, while the men were framed as masculine [source: LA 84 Foundation].

Adoption of Characters' Speech Patterns
One TV show that definitely influenced our speech is "Seinfeld."
One TV show that definitely influenced our speech is "Seinfeld."
Handout/Getty Images

When you start talking like your favorite television character or personality, then you know TVs influence on your speech patterns is truly complete. One TV show that has influenced our speech is "Seinfeld," the "show about nothing." Even though the show is no longer on the air, many of us still use its words and phrases. Is your boyfriend "spongeworthy?" Are you a "re-gifter?" And let's not talk about "shrinkage."

Copying the speech patterns of fictional characters is nothing new. People have been doing it since the early days of TV. Back in the '70s, imitating Vinnie Barbarino from "Welcome Back Kotter," or the mannerisms of Fonzi from "Happy Days" was very popular among teenagers. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" made "testosterone-y" a cool catchphrase in the '90s. And how many times have you channeled your inner Stewie from "Family Guy" when surprised -- "what the deuce?!"


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