Why We Quote Movies (maybe)

…or why we quote anything, really.

Dave Hill has this site, Wish I’d Said That (WIST), in which he collects quotes, so I should be really consulting him on this.  Dave, why do you quote things?  How do you choose the things you quote? But I have this feeling that he’d say something direct and logical, which is fine, but I want to say something indirect and illogical.

Obviously, we quote things that are quotable.  Either they’re short and quippy or they’re long but otherwise memorable.  We quote things because we want to quote them.  We quote them because we really hope that someone will get the reference.  An old friend of mine, Peter Smith, quoted on his Facebook page:

Let marrow, bone, and cleaver choose…

To which I responded correctly with:

While making feet for children’s shoes.

So now I have the song in my head, and memories of Peter in my head.  Good times.

But is that the fundamental reason why we quote things?  To remember them, to call up associations?

I want to be able to give a clear answer here, but I don’t know if there is one.  But follow me for a moment, and see if you don’t agree with this other idea I’ve had spinning around in my head, because since I’ve pulled it together it keeps cropping up.

1.  Many, if not most, words are ultimately based on a metaphor.

many (adj.)Look up many at Dictionary.com
Old English monig, manig “many, many a, much,” from Proto-Germanic *managaz (cf. Old Saxon manag, Swedish mången, Old Frisian manich, Dutch menig, Old High German manag, German manch, Gothic manags), from PIE *menegh- “copious” (cf. Old Church Slavonic munogu “much, many,” Old Irish menicc, Welsh mynych “frequent,” Old Irish magham “gift“). Pronunciation altered by influence of any (see manifold).
metaphor (n.)Look up metaphor at Dictionary.com
late 15c., from Middle French metaphore (Old French metafore, 13c.), and directly from Latin metaphora, from Greek metaphora “a transfer,” especially of the sense of one word to a different word, literally “a carrying over,” from metapherein “transfer, carry over; change, alter; to use a word in a strange sense,” from meta- “over, across” (see meta-) + pherein “to carry, bear” (see infer) (Online Etymology Dictionary).

2.  What we do, when we don’t have a word for something, is make a new word, based on a metaphor.

Some of the 2012 additions to Merriam Webster:

  1. aha moment
  2. bucket list
  3. cloud computing
  4. copernicium
  5. earworm
  6. energy drink
  7. f-bomb
  8. game changer
  9. gassed
  10. gastropub
  11. man cave
  12. mash-up
  13. sexting
  14. systemic risk
  15. underwater

3.  Sometimes the ideas we want to communicate are too big for a single metaphor, either because they’re just too big, or because they’re conflicted, or meaningless without context (well, most metaphors are meaningless without context–could you really understand a mashup if you’ve never heard one?).

If you go here you’ll find a list of the top 100 movies on IMDB.  In case you’re rolling your eyes at this point, let me list some:

  • The Godfather
  • Schindler’s List
  • Raging Bull
  • The Shawshank Redepmption
  • Casablanca
  • One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest
  • Citizen Kane
  • Vertigo
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Titanic
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Sunset Blvd.
  • Godfather Part II
  • Psycho
  • On the Waterfront
  • Forrest Gump
  • The Sound of Music
  • West Side Story
  • Star Wars
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  • 2001:  A Space Odyssey
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Chinatown
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai

I typed that list out by hand, and it was tougher than it looked.  The movies I’d seen on this list (most of them) kept trying to overtake me as I was typing.  I still have “the heeeeeels are aliiiiiiiive” in my head, but I’m especially vulnerable to musicals.

If you can sum up any one of these movies as a single metaphor, you’re probably doing it wrong.

and so…

4.  When you quote a movie (or anything else), what you’re invoking isn’t that single line.

As you wish. (The Princess Bride)

I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you. (Firefly)


Off with their heads! (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)


You’re invoking the entire work–the movie, book, or whatever.  You are taking something that can’t be said any shorter than the work itself, and calling up the entire work, and the implications of that work, by just bringing up one small part of it; the quote is a fractal part of the work, and can be used to recreate the work as a whole.

And more than that.

5.  For me, the easiest way to think about this is through poetry.

Poetry is bigger than metaphor–it contains multiple metaphors–and it has heightened, very patterned language.  The creation of patterns in poetry is deliberate–not necessarily formal, but deliberate.  Poetry starts with things we know how to talk about, like Wild Bill and roses and rolled-up trousers and red wheelbarrows in the rain.  Then it moves into things that we don’t know how to talk about, like death, love, despair, and how the brain works.  Often the poet won’t even bother to talk about the real “point” of the poem:  it’s created through patterns, and breaking of patterns, more than it is strictly through metaphors.  You can write poetry without metaphor, although poetry will tend to produce (excrete?) metaphor more often than not.  Human brains are such that they will find meaning in patterns, no matter what the pattern is, and poetry tends to be complex enough that multiple patterns can be found in them, intended or no.

This is why it’s so hard to sum up complex works.  It’s hard to find the one clear, compelling pattern in a work that someone new would enjoy.  It requires a different talent than just figuring out a working pattern in the first place, because new, unintended patterns emerge as you create the work.

6.  So in the end, we quote movies because we need to say something bigger than what we can otherwise invoke…and quoting the movie is the easiest way to do it.  When we say, “two by two, hands of blue,” we really are speaking poetry.



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